- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 4, 2009

STRASBOURG, FRANCE (AP) - He says it’s a new day in U.S.-European relations, but President Barack Obama may find at NATO’s 60th anniversary summit Saturday that it’s the same old story of allied reluctance to send more troops to Afghanistan.

The European allies may pony up a marginal increase in forces keyed to preparations for Afghanistan’s national elections in August, but the Obama administration is pinning its main hopes on getting more civilian contributions _ particularly trainers for the Afghan police.

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

Obama was to be taking part in NATO discussions and holding a news conference as the day unfolded.

At the summit’s opening on Friday, capped by a working dinner in nearby Baden-Baden, Germany, Obama promised to repair damaged relations with Europe, asked for support of his new war strategy in Afghanistan and pledged a U.S. commitment to global elimination of nuclear weapons _ in the name of keeping nuclear arms out of the hands of terrorists.

The summit’s co-hosts, Sarkozy and Merkel, both were quick to offer support for Obama’s new Afghan strategy of sending American reinforcements and bolstering the training of Afghan forces. But they would go no farther.

“We totally endorse and support America’s new strategy in Afghanistan,” Sarkozy said a joint news conference with Obama after they met.

After her own talks with the president, Merkel said: “We have a great responsibility here. We want to carry our share of the responsibility militarily _ in the area of civil reconstruction and in police training.”

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said securing new commitments from allies would neither begin nor end with the NATO meetings, noting that nations need more time to digest Obama’s revamped war strategy. Obama’s national security adviser, retired Gen. James Jones, said Obama’s new approach to Afghanistan, which calls for widening the approach to include more civilian effort and broadening the focus to include Pakistan, would inspire fresh involvement. “I think there’s a new mood,” Jones said.

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. Asked about the likelihood those pledges would not include combat troops, the official said alliance members would be making contributions that are “equally vital.” The official spoke on condition of anonymity because no decisions had been announced.

For Saturday’s closing conference, Obama and the allies were turning to vexing issues facing NATO six decades after it was formed as a bulwark against the former Soviet Union and as a spur to the kind of European integration that the co-hosts of the summit _ former World War II enemies France and Germany _ exemplify. They also were welcoming two new members, Croatia and Albania.

Also on the agenda: applauding Sarkozy’s decision to return France to full participation on NATO’s military councils, after a 43-year absence.

Speaking in Baden-Baden, Obama tried to counter a European perception of American arrogance on the world stage, saying: “I don’t come here bearing grand designs. I’m here to listen, to share ideas.” He made clear, however, that his administration wants to press the allies to craft a new framework for the future, a new road map to define NATO’s roles, missions and way of functioning.

Noting that there are “a whole host of hot spots” bedeviling the West beyond Afghanistan, Obama said, “We’ve got to figure out what is NATO’s role in that.”

The leaders are expected to issue a declaration Saturday formally launching a project to come up with such a “strategic concept.” It would be the first such revision of the alliance’s purpose and function since 1999, before the 9/11 terrorist attacks that propelled the United States into Afghanistan and a conflict that, nearly eight years later, is worsening and growing more complex.

Other topics of discussion included Russia, which strongly opposes further eastward expansion of NATO, and the prospect of accelerating arms control talks. The leaders were expected to endorse a return to normal relations with Russia, nine months after Moscow invaded Georgia.

The dominant subject, however, was Afghanistan, where there are about 38,000 U.S. troops and a like number of European, Canadian and non-NATO forces. Obama has agreed to send 21,000 more, including a contingent of 4,000 trainers announced last week.

The allies were expected to declare in a closing communique that they endorse a united way forward in Afghanistan, with more emphasis on non-military aspects of the struggle.

Upon his arrival in Strasbourg on Friday, Obama encouraged a skeptical Europe to support his revamped strategy for stabilizing Afghanistan _ an approach that he says is inextricably linked to the terrorist and insurgent problem in neighboring Pakistan.

Obama said Europe should not expect the U.S. alone to bear the combat burden.

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

___

Associated Press writer Mark S. Smith contributed to this story from Strasbourg.

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