- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 4, 2009

STRASBOURG, FRANCE (AP) - President Barack Obama heralded “concrete commitments” from NATO allies to help advance America’s strategy in Afghanistan on Saturday, calling their agreement to send up to 5,000 more military trainers and police “a strong down payment” toward securing the country.

But the allies refused to agree to a U.S. request for additional combat troops. And Obama said more help of all kinds will be needed.

Even so, he declared, “I am pleased that our NATO allies pledged their strong and unanimous support for our new strategy.”

Obama commented at the end of a NATO summit that was heavily focused on Afghanistan and the retooled U.S. approach to rooting out terrorists there and in neighboring Pakistan. He likened the allies’ commitments to “NATO putting its stamp of approval” on the strategy, and he said, “We’ve started to match real resources to achieve our goals.”

The White House said NATO countries agreed to send more personnel, including about 3,000 on short-term deployments, as the alliance steps up its campaign to stabilize Afghanistan before elections in August. An additional 1,400 to 2,000 will provide training for Afghanistan’s national army.

Obama said those figures should not be considered a ceiling, suggesting more could be sought and offered at some point to confront a threat that he insisted repeatedly endangers Europe as well as the U.S.

“We’ll need more resources and a sustained effort to achieve our ultimate goals,” he said.

But the allies rebuked Obama’s push for Europe to share the burden of the anti-terror fight in Afghanistan with more combat troops. That leaves the heavy lifting in U.S. hands. As he escalates U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Obama also is seeking to broaden the multinational commitment to preventing new terrorist attacks.

“This effort cannot be America’s alone. All of NATO understands that al-Qaida is a threat to all of us and that this collective security effort must achieve its goals,” added Obama, who is working hard to prevent the anti-terror mission from being viewed as a U.S. war and, by extension, his.

Since Obama took office in January, the United States has committed to sending 21,000 additional troops as part of his new strategy.

The president is in the midst of an eight-day European trip focused on the global economic crisis and the terrorism fight in Afghanistan.

On the latter front, Obama spent the past few days trying to drum up support during a summit marking the 60th anniversary of NATO.

At a news conference before heading to Prague for a European Union meeting, Obama downplayed the NATO allies’ refusal to send in more combat troops, saying the summit was “not a pledging conference.”

“All these allies have combat troops on the ground,” and “part of our strategy is to make sure we have a much more comprehensive approach,” Obama said.

“The trainers that we’re sending in are no less important than those who are in the south in direct combat with the Taliban,” Obama said. America’s allies, he added, “are making significant commitments despite having participated in what’s turned out to be a very lengthy operation.”

He declined to predict when he expects the war in Afghanistan to end, saying: “We are going to get this job done.”

Asked about a controversial new Afghan law _ critics say it makes it legal for men to rape their wives _ Obama called the law “abhorrent.”

He said the law came up in conversations among the allies, and he noted that the NATO communique specifically stated that human rights should be respected.

But Obama’s answer also underscored the new administration’s shift away from a focus on building democracy in Afghanistan: He said that while improving conditions there is a worthy goal, people need to remember that the primary reason that U.S. troops are fighting is to protect Americans from terrorist attacks.

“The first reason we are there is to root out al-Qaida,” he said.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has said the law will be studied and possibly sent back to Parliament for review.

Obama, seeking to change the way the U.S. is perceived around the globe, was asked by one foreign journalist whether he thought the United States was uniquely qualified to lead the world. The president said that he did believe in “American exceptionalism” but not at the expense of any other country.

He said his belief in the United States does not lessen the fact “we’re not always going to be right, or that other people may have good ideas, or that in order for us to work collectively, all parties have to compromise _ and that includes us.”

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