- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 4, 2009

STRASBOURG, FRANCE (AP) - NATO allies have agreed to send up to 5,000 more military personnel to Afghanistan as the alliance steps up its campaign to stabilize the country before elections in August, the White House said Saturday.

About 3,000 of the personnel will be on short-term deployments, sent in to provide security before the pivotal elections this summer, said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs. Another 1,400 to 2,000 will provide training for Afghanistan’s national army.

“If we don’t get the security around the elections right, a lot of the other things we want to do won’t matter,” Gibbs said.

NATO leaders also agreed to create a $100 million trust fund to assist Afghanistan’s army, with $57 million of it coming from Germany.

The United States is sending in 21,000 additional troops as part of President Barack Obama’s new anti-terror strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Earlier Saturday, Obama welcomed Albania and Croatia to the alliance and declared to other nations that “the door to membership will remain open.”

“It is a measure of our vitality that we are still welcoming new members,” Obama said of NATO, which is marking its 60th anniversary at a summit dominated by the war in Afghanistan.

Obama, the one doing the welcoming, is himself new to the table. He is taking part in his first NATO summit and seeking support from allied nations toward the plodding effort in Afghanistan, where the new U.S. president is sending in more troops and civilian help.

As the leaders got down to business, the two NATO summit hosts, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, made it clear they embraced new U.S. leadership. “We are very pleased to work with him,” Sarkozy said of Obama. “We trust him.”

Meanwhile, outside, police fired tear gas and flash bombs at protesters throwing Molotov cocktails and rocks less than 2 miles from the gathering of world leaders. First lady Michelle Obama and other spouses canceled a visit to a cancer hospital out of concern for security, the French president’s office said.

One of NATO’S stickiest political issues is how and where to grow. Germany, France and many other NATO nations fear any more NATO eastward expansion will further damage the alliance’s ties to Russia.

Said Obama: “The door to membership will remain open for other countries that meet NATO standards and can make a meaningful contribution to allied security.”

Founded in 1949, NATO has added members since the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, its Soviet-dominated Cold War foe. In contrast to the alliance’s previous eastward expansion, which infuriated Russia, Moscow has not objected to the inclusion of Albania and Croatia in NATO.

Albania and Croatia officially joined NATO this week. Obama praised them for having already deployed troops to the NATO-led force in Afghanistan, calling that commitment a sign that both countries will be strong contributors.

“We are proud to have you as allies,” Obama said. He also made a pitch for Macedonia and said he looks forward to the day when it will would join the alliance, too. Macedonia’s accession to NATO has been stalled over a dispute with Greece.

Earlier, in a move symbolic of NATO’s unity, Obama began his Saturday by joining Merkel and other heads of states in walking along a pedestrian bridge that links Germany and France across the Rhine River. The leaders met Sarkozy at the center of the bridge, then crossed together onto the French side in Strasbourg and posed for a group photo.

In the midst of an eight-day trip abroad, Obama says it is a new day in U.S.-European relations. But he encountered the same old story of allied reluctance to send more troops to Afghanistan.


Associated Press writers Jennifer Loven and Mark S. Smith contributed to this story from Strasbourg.

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