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Obama, the pragmatist, wins NATO kudos but few troops for Afghan mission

The US president got a ringing endorsement of his new Afghanistan strategy – but only 3,000 new, mostly non-combat troops.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 5, 2009

US President Barack Obama, gestured, as he took a question from a member of the media, during his news conference at the NATO Summit in Strasbourg, France, on Saturday.

Charles Dharapak/AP


Strasbourg, France

It was the pragmatic compromise of a new US president whose early priority overseas is rebuilding relations. Three months into office, and at Barack Obama's debut NATO summit, the White House spent its capital shoring up the Atlantic alliance, building trust with NATO partners, and securing an Afghan commitment – rather than pushing hard for a sizeable fighting force deployed to the Hindu Kush.

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In the end, that's what President Obama got at NATO's 60th anniversary: a ringing endorsement by France and Germany of his new Afghanistan strategy – but only 3,000 new, mostly non-combat troops for a mission that remains a political hazard here, along with $600 million in assistance.

"If you push too hard and ask too much, you risk a repeat of the Bush-years' bruised feelings in Europe, and risk an unraveling of the coalition now in Afghanistan," says Charles Kupchan, a Europe specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "The White House made a start. They said, 'Let's accept less than what we might want right now, to ensure NATO stays put in Afghanistan.' "

The White House strategy aims to balance civil and military operations and bolster the Afghan police and Army en route to a responsible drawdown of NATO forces. The White House affirmed publicly in Strasbourg that it needs help, though in a final statement Obama noted, "This was not a pledging conference," and accentuated the positive aspects of Europe's promise for trainers and funding, calling it a "strong down payment on the future of our mission in Afghanistan ... and NATO."

Fréderic Bozo, a transatlantic expert at the Sorbonne in Paris, said it was "clear for weeks there would be no military increase coming from Europe.... The Obama administration made a virtue of necessity."

In post-NATO summit editorials, two British papers, the Sunday Times and the Telegraph, chided the alliance for not giving the White House more military assistance in support of its strategy. "The truth is that the United States, with the strong backing of a minority of NATO members, including Britain, is not being adequately supported by the rest of NATO," the Times stated.

Diplomacy success

In diplomatic terms, the summit appeared to go swimmingly – though antiwar protesters turned central Strasbourg into a ghost town on Saturday. French police cracked down on protesters trying to gain access to a bridge over the Rhine – the border of France and Germany, where French president Nicolas Sarkozy and German chancellor Angela Merkel had a symbolic meeting.