Monday, April 06, 2009

Europeans Offer Few New Troops For Afghanistan

April 5, 2009

Europeans Offer Few New Troops for Afghanistan

New York Times

STRASBOURG, France — With protesters raging outside, NATO leaders on Saturday gave a tepid troop commitment to President Obama’s escalating campaign in Afghanistan, mostly committing soldiers only to a temporary security duty.

To a global audience concerned with an exit strategy, Mr. Obama used his most explicit language yet in detailing a narrowed war mission: emphasizing intense action against Al Qaeda even above instilling Western democracy and rights sensibilities.

“We want to do everything we can to encourage and promote rule of law, human rights, the education of women and girls in Afghanistan, economic development, infrastructure development,” he said. “But I also want people to understand that the first reason we are there is to root out Al Qaeda, so that they cannot attack members of the alliance.”

Answering a reporter’s question about whether the troop escalation would be contingent on whether the Afghan government rescinded a proposed family law that the United Nations has likened to legalizing rape within marriage, Mr. Obama replied that the law should not deter the United States from its military goal.

“I think this law is abhorrent. Certainly the views of this administration have been and will be communicated to the Karzai government,” he said. But he added, repeating for emphasis: “I want everybody to understand that our focus is to defeat Al Qaeda.”

For a NATO summit meeting marking the 60th anniversary of the alliance and intended to be without drama, the event has been fractious both inside the hall and outside it.

Thousands of protesters clashed with the riot police and set a hotel and a border post on fire in Strasbourg during the session. And although NATO leaders finally reached an agreement on a new secretary general — the Danish prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, 56 — the deal came only after days of hard negotiations to overcome Turkey’s opposition.

The Afghan war, too, remained a dividing line for alliance leaders. Despite a glowing reception and widespread praise for Mr. Obama’s style and aims, his calls for a more lasting European troop increase for Afghanistan were politely brushed aside, as they had been in negotiations leading up to the meeting.

As expected, European allies agreed to provide up to 5,000 new troops for Afghanistan, the White House said Saturday. But 3,000 of them are to be deployed only temporarily to provide security for the August elections in Afghanistan.

A further 1,400 to 2,000 soldiers will be sent to form embedded training teams for the Afghan Army and the police.

Mr. Obama is raising the number of American troops this year to about 68,000 from the current 38,000, which will significantly Americanize the war. The new strategy, which the Europeans have pressed for, is aimed at creating larger and better-trained Afghan security forces that can defend the country and allow the West to leave.

Much of Mr. Obama’s Afghanistan strategy review, which he formally presented to NATO leaders this weekend, reflects the view of a number of administration officials, particularly Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., that the United States should set limited, achievable goals in Afghanistan.

“No one will say this publicly, but the true fact is that we are all talking about our exit strategy from Afghanistan,” a senior European diplomat said Saturday. “We are getting out. It may take a couple of years, but we are all looking to get out.” He spoke on the condition of anonymity under diplomatic rules.

For Mr. Obama, in many ways, the two months since he took office have been a reality check on the difference between Europe’s vocal support and action.

In January, Obama administration officials expressed optimism that they would receive strong backing from European allies on a large number of additional troops for Afghanistan.

In February, Mr. Biden, appearing at the Munich Security Conference, said the administration was introducing a “more for more” strategy, by which it would give Europe more of what it wanted, by promising to shut the military prison at Guantánamo Bay and not to engage in torture.

In return, Mr. Biden said, the United States would expect more from Europe.

The Europeans have given more, but not much, and largely limited to the period around the August election. Germany said it would send an additional 600 troops. Spain offered 600; Britain, 900. European nations also offered more financing, promising about $100 million more to support the training mission and an additional $500 million in humanitarian aid.

Before the NATO meeting on Saturday, leaders walked across a sweeping bridge over the Rhine between Germany and France to symbolize Europe’s unity. But soon after, masked protesters were battling police officers from both countries on another bridge nearby, called the Bridge of Europe, or Pont de l’Europe.

The tensions were reflected inside the meeting hall as well. And NATO leaders struggled to choose the alliance’s new secretary general, driving negotiations on Saturday hours past schedule.

NATO works by consensus, and the European-favored candidacy of Mr. Rasmussen was publicly opposed by Turkey.

Turkey, NATO’s only Muslim-majority country, said that Mr. Rasmussen was insensitive to Muslim concerns during the scandal over the Danish newspapers’ publication in 2005 of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, and that while NATO was fighting in Muslim Afghanistan, the symbolism would be all wrong.

Mr. Rasmussen has also said he does not think Turkey will ever become a full member of the European Union.

Efforts to sway Turkish officials over the leaders’ lavish dinner Friday at a casino in Baden-Baden, Germany, failed, as did a telephone call by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy to Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

But behind closed doors, the deal was done. According to senior European diplomats, Turkey was given at least two NATO jobs, including a deputy to the deputy secretary general, who is an Italian.

Turkey was also promised that two blocked chapters of its accession agreement to join the European Union would move forward, and that Mr. Rasmussen would publicly address the concerns of the Muslim world about his response on the cartoons, possibly as soon as Monday.

Mr. Obama was said to be important to the Turkish decision to concede, meeting with President Abdullah Gul of Turkey and Mr. Rasmussen for an hour before the main session.

Saturday’s meeting began with niceties, with President Nicolas Sarkozy of France confirming his country’s return to full membership in NATO, and with President Obama welcoming Albania and Croatia to the alliance. Mr. Obama added that he expected Macedonia to join soon and that NATO’s door remained open to other countries.

But he made no specific mention of Georgia and Ukraine, whose increasingly distant accession to NATO has contributed to a rift in Russia’s relations with the West. At last year’s NATO meeting in Romania, President George W. Bush pushed hard for membership for Georgia and Ukraine, but he was rebuffed by European leaders.

While the United States has since then given lip service to continued support for NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine, Obama administration officials have privately indicated that they do not plan to put membership for those two countries at the top of the American agenda.

“The door to membership will remain open for other countries that meet NATO’s standards and can make a meaningful contribution to allied security,” Mr. Obama said.

In DNA, the Strasbourg newspaper, Jean-Claude Kiefer wrote: “More than his charisma, it is the style of Barack Obama that seduces Europeans. His speech ignores the ‘wooden tongue,’ this sad political specialty of Old Europe, and goes always, without detours, without populist or tortured formulas, to the essential.”

Mr. Sarkozy and Mrs. Merkel, the hosts, praised Mr. Obama. “We are very pleased to work with him,” Mr. Sarkozy said. “We trust him.”

Stephen Castle contributed reporting from Strasbourg.

Saturday, April 04, 2009
23:59 Mecca time, 20:59 GMT

Clashes mar Nato allies' summit

Scores of protesters were reported to have been hurt during the demonstrations in Strasbourg

Running battles have erupted and a hotel has been set ablaze after thousands of protesters clashed with police near the Nato summit being held in Strasbourg.

Riot police used water cannons and teargas after about 10,000 people turned out for demonstrations in the French city on Saturday.

A group of about 1,000 "particularly violent" rioters, some black-clad and masked, led the clashes, lobbing petrol bombs, burning tires, smashing windows and ransacking shops on the second day of the summit, police said.

Protestors were being contained around the Europe Bridge to prevent them spreading through the city, a statement from the regional prefecture said.

Protesters 'beaten up'

The bridge, which crosses the Rhine River, is 5km from the conference centre where 28 Nato leaders, including Barack Obama, the US president, were meeting.

Black smoke could be seen clearly from the venue.

About 50 of the protesters were reported to be hurt.

Organisers said the majority of demonstrators in Strasbourg and nearby Baden-Baden did not aim to carry out violence and blamed tensions on security forces.

"No one here has attacked any police, but we have been hit with teargas and beaten up," Monty Schaedel, a protest spokesman, said.

Violent clashes

Demonstrators from as far as Japan flocked to Strasbourg to campaign against war, capitalism, defence spending and nuclear weapons in view of the assembled leaders.

The initially calm protest on Saturday had turned violent by noon, when protestors first clashed with police at the Europe Bridge.

Some rioters later set fire to a former customs station on the French side and an Ibis hotel, which were both gutted before fire services were able to put them out.

On the German side, around 5,000 demonstrators gathered peacefully to cross the Europe Bridge, before finding themselves blocked by scores of police backed by water cannons.

The Czech Republic has also boosted security, ahead of a visit by Barack Obama, the US president, who headed to Prague on Saturday following the Nato summit and will meet with EU leaders there over the weekend.

France and Germany, which co-hosted the Nato summit, each deployed 15,000 police and troops at the start of the two-day meeting, in a security operation costing about $150m.

Police in Strasbourg had arrested hundreds of protesters before the summit opened on Friday.

Schools and the university were closed and most businesses and restaurants have shut down for the duration of the summit.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies

Saturday, April 04, 2009
23:59 Mecca time, 20:59 GMT

Nato allies boost Afghanistan force

Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy have said they support the US' "new strategy" in Afghanistan

Barack Obama, the US president, has praised Nato allies for agreeing to send 5,000 extra military personnel to Afghanistan following his call for a greater role for the alliance in the war.

Speaking at the Nato summit in the French city of Strasbourg on Saturday, the US president said the alliance's members had given "strong and unanimous" support to his "new strategy" for Afghanistan.

He said the allies had pledged to boost forces in Afghanistan in order to secure the Afghan presidential elections in August, as well as to further train and fund Afghan forces.

Rob Reynolds, Al Jazeera's senior Washington correspondent, said the US was "sending 21,000 fresh troops into Afghanistan, some of them for training purposes".

"The European NATO allies will contribute, temporarily, in smaller numbers," he said.

"[Obama said] that there would be 5,000 troops and trainers, 3,000 of that will be actual combat troops, the largest contingent of that force will be ... from Britain."

'Joint effort'

Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman, said 900 troops will come from the UK, 600 from Germany and 600 from Spain.

Italy and France would also commit forces, he said.

Speaking about Afghanistan earlier on Friday, Obama had said that "Europe should not simply expect the United States to shoulder that burden alone".

Shortly after taking office in January, Obama pledged to send 21,000 more troops to Afghanistan and is reportedly considering sending 10,000 more.

More than 70,000 foreign troops are already stationed in Afghanistan.

European welcome

Both Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, met Obama before the summit got under way.

Speaking at a news conference with Obama on Friday, Sarkozy gave his support to "the new American strategy in Afghanistan".

He said France, which has just been admitted back into Nato's military command structure after a 43-year absence, was "ready to do more" in the field of police training and economic aid, but had initially been tentative about increasing troops.

Merkel, the summit's co-host, said after talks with Obama in Baden Baden in Germany: "We have a great responsibility here. We want to carry our share of the responsibility, militarily, in the area of civil reconstruction and in police training."

"[The Obama administration's approach to Afghanistan] complements fully what Germany has in mind - a comprehensive approach,'' she said.

Following the end of the Nato summit on Saturday, Obama headed to Prague, the Czech capital, where he will meet with EU leaders over the weekend.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies

Monday, April 06, 2009
13:48 Mecca time, 10:48 GMT

Obama holds talks in Turkey

Obama is on a two-day visit to Turkey in the last leg of his European tour

Barack Obama, the US president, has begun talks with senior Turkish officials aimed at strengthening bilateral relations between Washington and Ankara.

Obama, who is in Ankara on the last leg of an eight-day European tour, is also scheduled to address the Turkish parliament.

Obama's two-day visit to Turkey is his first trip to a Muslim country as US president.

"I look forward to strengthening relations between the United States and Turkey and supporting [the founder of modern Turkey- Mustafa Kemal] Ataturk's vision of Turkey," Obama wrote in the memorial book at Ataturk's mausoleum where he laid a wreath ahead of official talks.

In the talks, Obama is expected to try to sell his new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, which includes proposals to counter a persistent Taliban and al-Qaeda campaign.

Obama will also "reaffirm US support of Turkey's bid to become a member of the EU", a US official said.

France, Austria and other nations oppose Turkey's long-running efforts to join the EU. Others in the organisation have urged Turkey to do more to guarantee minority rights, curb the powers of its military and pass new rights for trade unions.

Recent tiffs

While Turkey has been long regarded as a close US ally in the Muslim world, some analysts believe there has been a cooling of ties during the administration of George Bush, the former US president.

However, Obama hopes his visit will strengthen US-Turkish relations strained by the Iraq war.

Washington and Ankara had been sharply at odds in recent years over such issues as how to deal with Iran's nuclear programme, the rise to power of Hamas in the Palestinian territory of Gaza, and political developments in Sudan.

Al Jazeera's Anita McNaught, reporting from Istanbul, said: "What everyone wants to hear is how Obama will define new US ties with Turkey, because they are concerned that instability in Iraq may increase as the US pulls back, which could make Iraq their problem.

"At the same time, Turkey has enormous benefit in a peaceful and stable future for Iraq because while exports are down globally, Turkish exports to the re-nascent nation of Iraq are up 75 per cent," she said.

"That's not to mention the ongoing security agreement and a very critical emergent relationship between Turkey and the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq," McNaught said.

Busy trip

While in Turkey, Obama will visit Istanbul to meet religious leaders, tour historical sites and hold a round-table meeting with university students.

He is also scheduled to attend a reception of the Alliance of Civilisations, a forum which aims to foster dialogue between the West and the Muslim world.

The Turkish authorities have taken unprecedented security measures in view of Obama's visit.

A street leading to the hotel where the US president is staying in Ankara has been blocked off. Military jets and police helicopters have been instructed to patrol the capital's skies.

There have been huge protests preceding Obama's visit across many Turkish cities.

Protesters said the US president was seeking to pressure Turkey to deploy troops in Afghanistan in an effort to control the situation there.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies

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