Clinton pushes NATO allies for united strategy on Afghanistan

The Secretary of State also calls for a 'fresh start' with Russia.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Diplomacy: NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer listened to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels Thursday.
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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for a "fresh start" with Russia on her first visit to Europe, affirming Vice President Joe Biden's recent call to push a US "reset button" with Moscow.

America's top diplomat met NATO ministers ahead of a key April summit – one expected to solidify what is being called a more "realistic" alliance strategy on the troubled mission in Afghanistan.

Mrs. Clinton, after trips to Asia and the Middle East, is in Brussels to take the pulse of "the Western family," as a French analyst put it, and to meet allies.

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Atop the list of initiatives is Russia. Clinton emphasized a White House desire to rebuild relations with Moscow after the August war in Georgia, amid a US cooling on Bush-era projects like European missile defense and rapid NATO enlargement along Russia's border. She meets Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Ivanov in Geneva Friday to restart nuclear arms control talks, and discuss Afghanistan.

Clinton said, however, that "[we] should continue to open NATO's door to European countries such as Georgia and Ukraine and help them meet NATO standards."

A "fresh start" with Russia moves the US closer to the pragmatic position of Europe's heavyweight, Germany, where the question – as described by Ulrike Guérot, of the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin – is: "What is the place of Russia in Europe? Which is tied to the question, 'Which way is Russia going?'"

Allies advocated strengthening a NATO-Russia council, which NATO chief Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told reporters is "not a fair weather body" – and should be used to discuss "everything," including Russian troops considered to be illegally deployed in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

But Afghanistan was the hot underlying issue in Brussels. In Pakistan's Swat Valley, recently ceded to Taliban forces by Pakistan, the Taliban are already appointing civil servants, acting with impunity against civilians, and cranking up heavy new propaganda machinery via FM radio. The secretary began consulting on a nearly finished US strategy for the NATO Afghan deployment.

Europeans, despite enthusiasm for Barack Obama, are skeptical about more NATO troops for Afghanistan, especially lacking a clear strategy. Clinton's visit comes in tandem with Mr. Biden, former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who visits NATO next Tuesday on that Afghan strategy.

Sources close to the State Department say the new strategy is likely to reenergize a broad Afghan-Pakistan regional approach, with a set of more tightly focused but downsized goals. The previous goal to "democratize" Afghanistan will probably shift toward "efficient" and "achievable" stabilization – avoiding an open-ended mission, but requiring more immediate "heavy lifting" by allies. The strategy will require more troops to achieve a balance of military and civilian help, but also to bring in India, Iran, Russia, and even China.

"You need a buy-in on the strategy by allies," says one US diplomat in Europe. "If you are Europe, and you don't believe in the strategy, you offer cosmetic help, but you don't make life--and-death decisions and commitments in Afghanistan."

Troop contributions were not discussed in Brussels. Mr. Scheffer said it was a meeting of foreign ministers, "not a troop-pledging meeting." But he said more troops are needed even if a new strategy emphasizes civil reconstruction.

Britain, France, and Germany have appointed special envoys to the region, in the manner of President Obama's choice of Richard Holbrooke. But in general, the Europeans have been waiting for the US plan, expected this month, rather than taking a proactive stance.

"The European commitment is low for a war that could turn into Vietnam," says Ms. Guérot. "However, if you look at the 10 people that count most in this country [Germany], they are hedging their comments on Afghanistan."

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper framed the current Afghan moment sharply last weekend. Canadian troops are deployed in some of the toughest parts of south Afghanistan and are scheduled to pull out in 2011. Mr. Harper cast the need for a new strategy against a strong belief, shared in Europe, that "We are not going to ever defeat the insurgency," as he told CNN and The Wall Street Journal.

The new French envoy, Pierre Lellouche, a member of Parliament and experienced foreign-policy hand, pointed out that "'When the Americans went to Iraq, after the Taliban downfall in Afghanistan, they only left 7,000 men. Security was delegated to more-or-less corrupted warlords and the security system got worse, while the Taliban were rebuilding their forces in the Pakistani tribal areas."

The Obama administration, which has still to appoint many levels of senior diplomats, is trying to shift the tone of US policy from one of unilateralism to one of consultation. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, in a joint address to Congress this week, said Europe now has "the most pro-American leadership in living memory."

"The Europeans are still giddy about Obama's election," says Charles Kupchan, of the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "The US is putting out feelers and gestures of goodwill. It is yet to see what will be reciprocated. Sending 17,000 more US troops [to Afghanistan] is one piece. The deployment is needed to get neighbors to help out."

Ronald Asmus, of the German Marshall Fund in Brussels, hopes the Obama team moves more swiftly to appoint senior US officials and to keep Europe a high priority. "There needs to be a reset button on Europe, just as there is on Russia," Mr. Asmus says. "The atmosphere has changed, the Europeans are ready to roll up their sleeves. But the gaps on Afghanistan, Russia, and enlargement are real."

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