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Obama woos Europe on Afghanistan

In Strasbourg, the US president cast the war as an international – not just American – problem.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 3, 2009

President Obama consults with Turkish President Abdullah Gul and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the NATO summit Friday in Baden-Baden, Germany. Obama asked US allies for more support for the NATO mission in Afghanistan.

Michel Euler/AP

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Strasbourg, France

As a crucial NATO summit opens tonight in both France and Germany – in the cities of Strasbourg and nearby Baden-BadenBarack Obama used both venues to politely urge more allied help for the NATO mission in Afghanistan, casting it as an international, not just an American, crisis.

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Allowing terror havens to exist in the Afghan region is "a threat not just to the US, but to Europe," President Obama told a press conference in this city, home of Goethe and Gutenberg, even adding that an Al Qaeda attack may be "more likely" in Europe because of its geographic "proximity." The new president, on a continent deeply opposed to the Iraq war, distinguished between Afghanistan as a war in which Europe would fight if attacked – and Iraq, which he called a "a war of choice."

"We [had] lost our focus on Afghanistan; and now we have refocused," Obama said, a message many Europeans officials say is long overdue.

Still, diplomatic sources anticipate the dispatch of only several hundred to a few thousand more troops from NATO countries, whose militaries are stretched and whose publics have lost interest in a fight seen as "far away in the Hindu Kush," as one German military official put it.

Obama recently boosted the number of US troops in Afghanistan to 68,000 by the fall, in line with a new strategy to balance military and civil reconstruction. Europe and Canada have 30,000 troops there; the Americans are in town hoping for more troops, or at least more funding and equipment.

Yet as the US shifts attention from Iraq to Afghanistan, Europeans are variously war-weary and unconvinced. Arguments here against troops run the gamut: European leaders say their political futures are at risk over casualties. Some officials feel a solution in tribal Afghanistan, "graveyard of empires," is impossible. The popular view of the crisis has drifted from that of a legitimate war to an "anti-war" sensibility, with a leitmotif that, while serious and vexing, it "is not our problem."

Europeans also say in a slightly louder voice that the US made a mistake by allowing the Taliban to reemerge during the height of the Iraq war.

Under Obama, a new US interagency white paper on Afghanistan prescribes a strong, coordinated diplomatic, civil, and military effort – the language combines "urgency" and "achievable objectives" – to boost the Afghan Army and police in a way that will "allow us and our partners to wind down our combat operations."

The US strategy emphasizes a swift initiative. But as a senior official in Berlin stated, "Europe is not good at doing this speedily."

Milestones at Strasbourg

The Strasbourg meeting, "NATO in 2020: What Lies Ahead?" marks several milestones: It is the 60th anniversary of NATO; a new civilian NATO chief will be announced, as Jaap de Hoop Scheffer retires; Croatia and Albania will formally join the alliance; and the French under President Nicolas Sarkozy will become full members again, more than 40 years after President Charles de Gaulle withdrew the French over institutional disagreements.