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World & Nation

Obama leaves final NATO summit with work unfinished on both Afghanistan and Russia

President Obama

President Obama reaches for the hand of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko at the NATO summit in Warsaw with, from left, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande.

(Susan Walsh / Associated Press)

President Obama’s final NATO summit wrapped up Saturday as a testament to stalled progress he sought on two fronts at his first alliance meeting seven years ago: a bolstered commitment to Afghanistan to allow the U.S. to wind down its role there, and the pursuit of “a constructive relationship with Russia,” as he put it in 2009.

Instead, the alliance is preparing for a mission in Afghanistan that will continue into a third decade, and its leaders detailed on Saturday an increased military presence in Eastern Europe in a bid to thwart continued Russian aggression. A day earlier, the U.S. announced that 1,000 American troops will be stationed in Poland with complementary numbers from NATO allies in three Baltic states. Officials called it the largest deployment of military personnel by the alliance since the end of the Cold War.

For the record:
2:40 PM, Jul. 09, 2016

An earlier version of this story incorrectly said NATO leaders were encouraging the Russian government to meet its obligations under the Minsk agreement. NATO leaders were encouraging the Ukrainian government, not Russia.

“If Russia continues this pattern of aggressive behavior, there will be a response and there will be a greater presence in Eastern Europe,” White House deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes said. “We will not be in any way deterred from fulfilling our commitments by anything that Russia says or does.”

The ongoing political and civil unrest in Ukraine has been the most obvious example of how Russian President Vladimir Putin has pushed what was first a Cold War alliance to return to its roots, even as it seeks to reorient itself to take on 21st century threats. Obama and other key leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization met Saturday with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko not only to demonstrate a united front, the White House said, but also to encourage the Ukrainian government to continue implementing its obligations under the 2015 Minsk agreement that called for an end to war in Ukraine.

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NATO is also close to declaring that it has a working missile defense system in Eastern Europe, seven years after Obama scrapped plans for a separate system that would have been stationed in Poland and the Czech Republic. The change in plans was emblematic of how the U.S. and other Western nations “were caught surprised” by Russia’s actions, said Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio).

“The United States was pursuing the reset plan while Putin was pursuing a reset of the Soviet bloc,” said Turner, who attended the summit as president of NATO’s parliamentary assembly. “It took too long for the leadership of NATO to realize that they had a real adversary and they needed to respond.”

Russia has also complicated Western efforts to end Syria’s civil war; Putin is aligned with the Syrian government, which is fighting some U.S.-backed rebel groups as well as Islamic State extremists. A Russian helicopter was downed Friday by the militant group, the Russian Defense Ministry confirmed Saturday, according to Russia Today television. The helicopter’s two-man crew was killed in the crash.

On Afghanistan, the president’s decision this week to scale back planned reductions in U.S. troop levels helped lock in commitments to sustain the NATO-led military effort there through 2020. Afghan security forces will carry on fighting against the Taliban, Islamic State and other terrorist groups with the support of the international community’s train, advise and assist mission. 

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The president acknowledged that history will record him as the first to serve two full terms with the nation at war.

But because U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have shifted from combat to training and assisting local forces against militant groups, they are “fundamentally different” from when he took office, Obama said. He acknowledged that against terrorist groups, the end of a conflict might not be as discrete as it once was, citing the example of Gen. Douglas MacArthur meeting with Japanese Emperor Hirohito at the end of World War II.

“Because they’re nonstate actors, it’s very hard for us ever to get the satisfaction of MacArthur and the emperor meeting and a war officially being over,” Obama said.

He did reiterate to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani that the U.S. was open to reconciliation talks with the Taliban, should the latter be open to returning to the negotiating table.

‘‘It was a clear message for the militants to lay down arms and join the peace process. Otherwise, the international community is committed to fighting them,’’ said Gen. Dawlat Waziri, spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry.

The support for the Afghan government would potentially affect the Taliban’s operational leadership. Waziri added, “The Taliban are losing hope as they learn that we are capable of fighting them.’’

The reality on the ground belied his optimism. The Taliban controls more territory in the country than it has since the U.S.-led invasion 15 years ago, according to U.N. estimates. And more than 5,500 Afghan troops were killed last year in combat with the Taliban that revealed significant shortcomings among Afghan security forces. 

The White House billed the summit announcements as a testament both to the strength of the military alliance, even as its European members face an uncertain future with Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, and to Obama’s role in forging that unity.

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“We talk about NATO unity a lot every time there’s a summit,” said Elissa Slotkin, the acting assistant secretary of Defense for international security. “But I think it was a particularly poignant message today, a few weeks after ‘Brexit,’ and particularly because it’s both President Obama’s and [British] Prime Minister [David] Cameron’s final summit.”

Obama declared the outcome as a fulfillment of his overarching foreign policy goal: to strengthen America’s alliances.

“We have delivered on that promise,” he said Saturday. “NATO is as strong, as ready and as nimble as ever.”

Special correspondents Sultan Faizy in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Nabih Bulos in Berlin contributed to this report.

michael.memoli@latimes.com

For more White House coverage, follow @mikememoli on Twitter.

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UPDATES:

2:40 p.m.: This article was updated with developments in Syria.

This article was originally published at 11:19 a.m.


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