- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 4, 2009

STRASBOURG, FRANCE (AP) - France and Germany fully endorsed President Barack Obama’s new Afghan war strategy but continued to firmly resist U.S. demands for more combat troops on Saturday at the start of NATO’s 60th-anniversary summit.

Obama told NATO leaders the alliance should remain open to new members, another stance that is likely to meet resistance from his allies. Germany, France and many other NATO nations believe that any more eastward expansion will further damage ties Russia that the alliance is trying hard to mend.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and two dozen other NATO leaders walked across a bridge separating Germany and France in a moment of unity before the summit began. The leaders met French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the halfway point on the Europa bridge spanning the Rhine river _ a symbolic departure from the enmity that once tore apart Europe and a setting aside of current differences, at least for a few minutes.

NATO’s ability to succeed in Afghanistan is seen as a crucial test of the power and relevance of the alliance founded to counterbalance the Soviet Union and now fighting a rising insurgency far beyond its borders. European leaders and voters remain deeply skeptical about whether more troops can stabilize a country devastated by decades of war.

As the summit itself got under way, Obama took a moment to welcome Albania and Croatia to being alliance membership to 28. Obama said he looked forward to the day when Macedonia will join NATO. Macedonia’s accession to NATO has been blocked over a dispute the country has with Greece.

Obama also said that “the door to membership will remain open” for countries that meet NATO standards and can make a meaningful contribution to allied security. He did not specify whether future members could come from the former Soviet Union, which Russia opposes.

But Afghanistan remained at the heart of the summit. Sarkozy and Merkel again stressed their support for the new strategy on Afghanistan that Obama was formally unveiling.

“We cannot afford to lose,” Sarkozy said in opening remarks, “because there (Afghanistan), some of the freedom of the world is at stake.” Merkel, the summit co-host, said that Afghanistan was a “test” case for the alliance.

Good will toward Obama, who worked the room patting leaders he had just met on the back, was in ample evidence.

“We trust him,” Sarkozy said. “We were expecting and waiting for the words we heard.”

However, both Merkel and Sarkozy stressed the need for Afghanistan’s government and security forces to shoulder an increasing share of the burden. They gave no sign they were prepared to send more troops. Both countries believe civilian aid and training for police are what is needed to stabilize Afghanistan.

“What we need to do is to understand Afghanistan is a text case for all of us,” Merkel said. “We need to promote Afghanization.”

At the summit’s opening on Friday, Obama promised to repair damaged relations with Europe and asked for support of his new strategy, which has him adding 21,000 U.S. troops to the force of 38,000 struggling against Taliban advances alongside a like number of European, Canadian and non-NATO forces

Obama said upon his arrival in Strasbourg Friday that Europe should not expect the United States to bear the combat burden alone.

“This is a joint problem,” Obama said. “And it requires a joint effort.”

British officials traveling to the summit with Prime Minister Gordon Brown told reporters aboard his plane that Brown will offer to send more troops to Afghanistan but that depended upon other NATO members being prepared to send additional forces, Britain’s Press Association reported.

Spain said ahead of the summit that it would add a small contingent to help train Afghan army officers. Belgium said it will add some 65 soldiers to a force of 500 and send two more F-16 jet fighters, bringing the total number it has sent to six.

A senior U.S. official traveling with Obama said Saturday that the administration expects that pledges and commitments from other NATO nations would come in over the next several weeks.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because no decisions had been announced.

The NATO leaders made no apparent progress on naming the next NATO secretary-general, who had appeared likely to be Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, despite opposition from Turkey. Fogh Rasmussen infuriated many Muslims by speaking out in favor of freedom of speech during an uproar over Danish publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in 2006. But Turkish officials, speaking on condition of anonymity Saturday because of the sensitivity of the topic, said they still opposed the Dane’s candidacy.

Obama and the allies also were expected to endorse a return to normal relations with Russia, nine months after Moscow invaded Georgia.

The alliance officially recognized France’s return to full participation on NATO’s military councils, after a 43-year absence.

Looking to the future, the leaders are expected to issue a declaration Saturday that formally launches the creation of a new “strategic concept” or road map to define NATO’s roles, missions and way of functioning.

It would be the first such revision of the alliance’s purpose and function since 1999.

Police had braced for violent protests but demonstrators were mostly smaller than expected. The French president’s office said, however, that Michelle Obama and other first ladies of NATO nations canceled a visit to a cancer hospital in Strasbourg near to where some 1,000 protesters had taken up positions.


Associated Press Writer Tom Raum contributed to this report.

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