NATO announced Saturday that it would send about 5,000 additional troops and trainers to Afghanistan, a boost that President Obama hailed as “a strong down payment on the future of our mission” there, but one that failed to include the combat forces Washington had sought.
The commitment came at the conclusion of Obama’s first summit of the most powerful military alliance in the world, an event marked by pageantry and protest here on the border between France and Germany.
The American leader had hoped to parlay his immense popularity in Europe into stronger promises of military support for the Afghan war, which has drawn increasing criticism on the continent. Throughout Obama’s visit, which started in London, European leaders have jockeyed for position next to him and screaming crowds have gathered for a glimpse of the president and the first lady.
But even as European leaders emphasized the importance of the Afghanistan mission, the boost announced Saturday pales in size next to the 21,000 additional U.S. troops that Obama has pledged to send to help fight the resurgent Taliban.
The new NATO troops will include 3,000 soldiers on temporary assignment to assist in securing national elections scheduled for August. The remainder will provide training for the Afghan army, to encourage its transformation from a ragtag band into a professional, well-equipped military.
Conspicuously absent are the extra combat troops that the U.S. had requested, an indication of how deeply divided many NATO countries remain about the war effort and their role in it.
Nonetheless, the president portrayed the commitment as a victory in his campaign to refocus efforts on stabilizing and building Afghanistan after the politically and financially ruinous diversion of the Iraq war.
“Keep in mind it was only just a week ago that we announced this new approach. . . . We’ve started to match real resources to achieve our goals,” Obama said. More resources were still necessary, but “these commitments of troops, trainers and civilians represent a strong down payment on the future of our mission in Afghanistan and on the future of NATO.”
Obama’s comments came as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization celebrated its 60th anniversary, welcomed two more countries into the fold and named its next secretary-general, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, whose candidacy had generated strong opposition from Turkey, the alliance’s only predominantly Muslim member nation.
But all eyes were on Obama on his maiden European voyage as president, and on the divisive issue of Afghanistan. For months, since before Obama’s election, the U.S. has been trying to persuade its NATO allies to cough up more troops for the battle against Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters believed to be hiding along the border with Pakistan.
In detailing a new strategy last month, the Obama administration pledged 4,000 additional U.S. troops to serve as trainers, raising to 21,000 the number of additional forces being deployed by Obama. That will boost the overall U.S. military presence to nearly 60,000, serving with about 35,000 NATO troops.
White House and Pentagon officials have acknowledged in recent weeks that their hopes for extra combat troops from NATO had dissipated. Instead, they repeatedly have pointed to a wide range of nonmilitary contributions that NATO countries could make to Obama’s strategy, including military training and economic development.
Such adjustments in expectations reflected not only the unpopularity of the war but also the difficulty the administration faces in repairing the U.S. image abroad sufficiently to win support from international leaders. In part, Obama has tried to appeal to ordinary Europeans in the hope of tempering animosity toward the United States.
The war is increasingly unpopular with many Europeans, making their leaders leery of sending more soldiers. Yet participants at the NATO summit agreed that the mission in Afghanistan was vital even as they brushed aside American requests to significantly beef up their forces.
“We need to understand Afghanistan is a test case for all of us,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared.
Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, summit co-hosts, expressed appreciation for Obama’s strategy.
“We cannot afford to lose, because there [in Afghanistan] some of the freedom of the world is at stake,” Sarkozy said, adding that Europe was “a strong pillar” the U.S. could rely on.
In addition to the troops and military trainers, NATO countries pledged $100 million to a fund for the Afghan army.
Although many Europeans were grateful to have any American leader other than the widely reviled former President George W. Bush, some political realities were too tough to overcome.
Obama charmed the audience at a town-hall-style meeting Friday in Strasbourg, during which he took the opportunity to emphasize the importance of the fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Yet on Saturday, antiwar and anti-NATO protesters thronged parts of the city, at one point setting fire to a hotel and causing police to resort to tear gas to beat them back. Several arrests were reported.
Nevertheless, the NATO meeting and an economic summit in London preceding it offered chances for Obama to talk up his willingness to listen and learn from Europe, which analysts say is especially receptive to the U.S. at the moment, right after the Bush era.
“The mood is so different, and the desire of Europeans to do things together with America is so much stronger,” Ronald D. Asmus, an analyst based in Brussels, said before Obama’s trip.
Observers had widely expected only modest new pledges of NATO troops in Afghanistan, which are what Obama ultimately won, but even then, “he’s getting a lot more than Bush could have gotten,” Asmus said.
There was another minor diplomatic victory for the White House in the unanimous appointment of Rasmussen as the new NATO secretary-general, a post that by tradition has gone to a European while the U.S. takes NATO’s lead military position.
Turkey had objected strongly to Rasmussen’s candidacy, citing his defense of the right of a Danish newspaper to publish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. The cartoons touched off violent protests in the Muslim world in late 2005 and early 2006.
Rasmussen was also seen as hostile to Turkey’s hoped-for membership in the European Union.
The Danish prime minister’s candidacy was in doubt all the way through Friday night, Turkish President Abdullah Gul told reporters. But a private meeting with Rasmussen and Obama helped win over Gul. There were also reports that Turkey had been promised some high-level positions in NATO as a deal sweetener.
The summit kicked off Saturday with an act laden with symbolism. Under sunny skies, Obama and other NATO leaders walked together across a bridge connecting Germany and France, two countries whose history of bloody conflict has been superseded by unity over common European security.
Obama joined Merkel and others in the walk over the Rhine, starting on the German side and meeting Sarkozy halfway across.
Later, the alliance welcomed two nations, Croatia and Albania, into the fold.
“It’s a measure of our vitality,” Obama said, “that we are still welcoming new members.”
Tribune staff writer Christi Parsons contributed to this report.