March 29, 2009 / 5:03 AM / 11 years ago

Obama to seek NATO support for Afghanistan plan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama will urge European allies to support his new strategy for Afghanistan, telling NATO partners this week their security could be at risk if the country falls into chaos.

British soldiers take cover as a helicopter lands at Musa Qala in Helmand province March 29, 2009. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

Making his first major foreign trip since taking office on January 20, Obama will discuss the economic crisis at the London Group of 20 summit of major economic powers on Thursday. He will then attend the NATO summit in Strasbourg, France, on Friday and Saturday, marking the alliance’s 60th anniversary.

Just ahead of the NATO summit, Obama has unveiled a plan for Afghanistan, where violence is at its highest level since U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban in 2001 and where the NATO mission has been criticized for disorganization.

Obama’s strategy broadens the U.S. focus to include Pakistan and puts as the highest priority the defeat of al Qaeda militants who he said were plotting new attacks on the United States. He will send 4,000 more U.S. troops to help train the Afghan army and will add more civilian personnel to help tackle problems such as a booming narcotics trade and government corruption.

But Obama emphasized that international cooperation was crucial to the plan’s success and promised to take that message to Europe, where the public has grown increasingly impatient with the Afghanistan effort.

“The world cannot afford the price that will come due if Afghanistan slides back into chaos or al Qaeda operates unchecked,” Obama said in a speech in Washington on Friday.

“What’s at stake now is not just our own security — it is the very idea that free nations can come together on behalf of our common security. That was the founding cause of NATO six decades ago. That must be our common purpose today,” he added.

In a shift that has been welcomed in Europe, Obama, a Democrat, has promised a more consultative foreign policy than that of his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush. His administration hopes Obama’s popularity abroad will raise the profile of his push for greater support for Afghanistan.

In preparing the new Afghanistan strategy, Obama launched a 60-day review that included input from European allies as well as other countries with a stake in the region.


Obama said that from NATO allies, he hoped for “not simply troops, but rather clearly defined capabilities,” including support for the Afghan elections, training of security forces and increased civilian support.

Analysts said that might be a tough sell.

Stephen Flanagan, a scholar at the CSIS think tank, said Obama will not have much luck obtaining more combat forces.

“There just isn’t the willingness on the part of most of the European allies to do that,” Flanagan said, but there would be greater willingness to help with training missions and civil resources.

“It’s going to be challenging, but I think this is where the administration and President Obama need to take full advantage of the goodwill that they have created with their new approach and emphasis on diplomacy,” said Juan Zarate, a former counterterrorism adviser to Bush.

“The real challenge is national interests have not changed,” said Zarate, who praised the Obama Afghanistan plan as well thought out. “There is not a lot of popularity in Europe and Brussels for sending more troops and certainly not a lot of appetite for sending civilians into what is a security-challenged environment.”

White House deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough said that while Obama had secured some new commitments of resources for Afghanistan before the NATO summit, it would be an “ongoing process” to solicit support.

Obama’s schedule at the Strasbourg summit will include bilateral meetings with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He will have a lengthy meeting in London with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

On the sidelines of the NATO summit, he will also set aside time to interact with the public during a speech and question-and-answer session with students from various parts of Europe.

After the NATO summit, Obama will attend a gathering of 27 European Union heads of state in Prague, where he also plans to deliver what his aides are billing as a major speech on nuclear proliferation.

President Barack Obama delivers remarks in Washington announcing a comprehensive, new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan March 27, 2009. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Looming over the Prague meeting will be the issue of missile defense. A U.S. plan to place a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic has angered Moscow.

Obama has suggested the United States would have no need to deploy proposed missile defenses in Eastern Europe if Moscow could help stop Iran from developing long-range weapons.

Reporting by Caren Bohan; Editing by Peter Cooney

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