STRASBOURG, France (AP) – President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and two dozen other NATO leaders walked across a bridge separating Germany and France in a moment of unity Saturday before a summit likely to see disagreements about Afghanistan and the alliance’s future.
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 a 60-year-old alliance founded to counterbalance the Soviet Union and now fighting a rising insurgency far beyond its borders. Merkel and Sarkozy have enthusiastically endorsed Obama’s new Afghan strategy but European leaders and voters remain deeply skeptical about whether more troops can stabilize a country devastated by decades of war.
The European allies have pledged a marginal increase in forces ahead of Afghanistan’s national elections in August.
The Obama administration has said it cannot shoulder the military burden alone, but it is now pinning its main hopes on more civilian contributions from Europe, particularly police trainers.
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.
Sarkozy said at a joint news conference with Obama Friday that France “totally” endorsed and supported America’s new strategy, and would contribute with development assistance and more training for police.
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.”
The allies were expected to declare in a closing communique that they endorse a united way forward in Afghanistan, with more emphasis on nonmilitary aspects of the struggle. But 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. Officials said the number would likely be in the “mid to high hundreds.” Britain has 8,000 troops in Afghanistan.
Spain said ahead of the summit that it would add a small contingent to help train Afghan army officers. Spain has 778 troops.
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. Belgium will also double its financial aid to an annual ¤12 million ($14.5 million) over the next two years.
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.
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, before the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks that propelled the United States into Afghanistan and a conflict that, almost eight years later, is worsening and growing more complex. Noting that there are “a whole host of hot spots” bedeviling the West beyond Afghanistan, Obama said Friday that, “We’ve got to figure out what is NATO’s role in that.”
The NATO leaders failed to reach an agreement Friday on the next NATO secretary-general, who 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.
Obama and the allies also were expected to endorse a return to normal relations with Russia, nine months after Moscow invaded Georgia. Russia still strongly opposes further eastward expansion of NATO but relations have warmed with the prospect of accelerating U.S.-Russian arms control talks.
In addition, NATO was welcoming two new members, Croatia and Albania and applauding Sarkozy’s decision to return France to full participation on NATO’s military councils, after a 43-year absence.
Police had braced for violent protests but demonstrators were smaller than expected and mostly peaceful. Officers held back nearly 2,000 protesters with tear gas and detained two dozen people in a pre-dawn clash in Strasbourg. About 200 demonstrators managed to make their way into the city center and occupied an intersection in a failed attempt to disrupt NATO delegates’ travel to the meeting.
The French president’s office said 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.