NATO Backs Obama's Afghan Plan but Pledges Few New Troops

A protester hurls a rock during the NATO summit in Strasbourg, France.
A protester hurls a rock during the NATO summit in Strasbourg, France. (By Miguel Villagran -- Getty Images)
By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 5, 2009

STRASBOURG, France, April 4 -- NATO allies handed President Obama a broad endorsement of his new Afghan strategy Saturday, pledging the temporary dispatch of 3,000 troops to protect elections next August, new military training teams to strengthen Afghanistan's army and more civilian experts to consolidate its government.

The promises, at a two-day summit marking NATO's 60th anniversary, constituted a sweeping demonstration of support for the new administration's leadership in what has become the alliance's main mission of the moment. But they dramatized once again that European leaders are unwilling to follow Obama's lead in making major new commitments of troops to fight and perhaps die in a faraway war that is widely unpopular among their voters.

At a closing news conference, Obama portrayed the outcome as a success for his maiden encounter with NATO summitry, suggesting that trainers and civilians can be just as valuable as fighters. The 28-nation alliance, he added, had come together in unanimous agreement that Afghanistan must be a strategic priority, even though it is thousands of miles from the European nations that the North Atlantic Alliance was conceived to protect. In addition, more European troop deployments could come in the months ahead, he suggested.

"These commitments of troops, trainers and civilians represent a strong down payment on the future of our mission in Afghanistan and the future of NATO," he declared, adding: "This was not a pledging conference."

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who co-hosted the summit with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, said the alliance was quick to endorse Obama's new strategy because it responded "point by point" to a long-standing European desire to put less emphasis on military attacks against the Taliban and more on building Afghanistan's army and civilian institutions.

"It is the European vision that is triumphing," he said, shrugging off a reporter's observation that the United States was sending in more troops while Europe was not.

The tension over troop levels in Afghanistan was one of two issues that overcast the NATO anniversary celebrations, held in this border city on the Rhine to emphasize Franco-German friendship after years of hostility and war. Unexpectedly, the other was choosing a new NATO secretary general to replace Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, a Dutchman who will step down in July.

European leaders, backed by the Obama administration, had chosen Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen of Denmark. But Turkey, NATO's only Muslim nation, said Rasmussen was unacceptable because of his actions during a 2006 controversy in Copenhagen over cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad in ways many Muslims found offensive.

Turkey's Muslim population objects to the choice, Turkish officials said, adding that it is tactically unwise to put Rasmussen forward as the face of NATO just as the alliance seeks to win support against the Taliban among the deeply Muslim people of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Sarkozy and Merkel dismissed Turkey's suggestion of further consultations and insisted that a decision be made in Strasbourg. Seeming irritated by the Turkish stand, Sarkozy said afterward that the "Franco-German axis" had prevailed over what he dismissed as "susceptibilities and misunderstandings" that distracted the alliance from its real problems.

In an effort to smooth over the dispute, U.S. officials said, Obama met on the sidelines with Turkish President Abdullah Gul and then with Gul and Rasmussen together. By the end of a long day of repeated delays in the summit schedule, Turkey relented on a promise that a Turk would be Rasmussen's assistant, opening the way for Rasmussen to be approved by consensus according to NATO rules.

In another demonstration of the U.S.-European alliance's difficulty in dealing with the Muslim world, Sarkozy and Merkel strongly condemned a new law in Afghanistan that, according to some interpretations, legalizes rape within marriage.

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