US President Obama has arrived in Baden-Baden on his first visit to Germany. Obama arrived from Strasbourg where he had earlier held talks with French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Obama was received with military honours by German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the start of the NATO summit at which the Western Alliance is celebrating the 60th anniversary of its founding.
President Obama with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Baden-Baden
In the evening Obama met with the 27 Heads of State and Government of the NATO member countries for talks focusing on the situation in Afganistan and Pakistan as well as NATO’s future relations with Russia.
Earlier in a major speech in Strasbourg, President Barack Obama called on America’s NATO partners to make better and more effective use of NATO resources in Afghanistan. He described the militant Islamist organisation, al-Qaeda, as a greater danger to Europe than to the United States. Mr Obama reiterated a by now almost standard appeal by US presidents when he asked Europe to develop stronger defences. Washington has been demanding an increase in European military spending for many years. Obama stressed that he wanted Europe to play a greater role than it had in the past and have more robust capabilities, as he put it. He described the mission to Afghanistan as an international operation denying that it was solely for the US to decide.
Europeans lukewarm on more troops for Afghanistan
The initial reaction to his speech from Britain will have been welcomed by the US President. Prime Minister Gordon Brown offered to increase troop numbers in Afghanistan on a temporary basis. Britain’s contingent currently numbers some 8,000. However, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, while warmly applauding the new US strategy on Afghanistan, refused to commit more French troops to the fighting against the Taliban. Instead he echoed the words of German Chancellor Angela Merkel who had earlier stressed the need for more civilian reconstruction work in Afghanistan rather than more troops.
This leaves the Americans very much on their own with their proposal to increase troop levels by 17,000 in Afghanistan this year in what military officials are describing as a surge against the Taliban. Obama took this decision just weeks ago in response to military gains by the Islamist extremist insurgency in Afghanistan in recent months. Nonetheless, the US President has also expressed his support for improved training for Afghan security forces and plans to send some 4,000 additional experts to train Afghan police forces. It was this point that was also underlined most emphatically here by President Sarkozy.
No NATO troops in Pakistan: Obama
However, the summit is by no means only about Afghanistan. The real significance of the reappraisal of US strategy on Afghanistan is the recognition by Washington that Pakistan must be given greater attention. The ability of the Taliban to regroup on Pakistani territory after attacking Western Alliance forces in Afghanistan is viewed as a key element in recent Taliban successes. For this reason US officials recently announced bounty money for the capture of key Pakistani Taliban leaders and an increase in attacks on Taliban leaders using unmanned drones in Pakistan. This is clearly what Obama meant when he referred on Friday to a more effective use of Alliance resources whilst ruling out the use of Western forces in Pakistan itself. Thus, US officials are now talking about a combined strategy for both countries, known as the Afghan-Pak strategy.But while the US is planning to escalate the war in the short-term and improve the military situation on the ground there are also clear signs that the longer term object is to try out the option of talks with the so-called moderate Taliban, but from a position of strength. Secret negotiations with such groups have already been initiated by the Karsai government with the Saudis acting as mediators. This move, initiated by Karsai, is said to have improved the standing of the much criticised Afghan leader in Washington, as it is hoped that it could eventually provide the US with an exit strategy. However, from a European perspective it has no guarantees of success. Moreover, the widening of the war to Pakistan is a high risk strategy which could further destabilise the embattled Islamabad government.