NATO allies meeting in Romania at a major alliance summit reconfirmed their "long-term commitment" to Afghanistan and pledged to substantially beef up troop numbers in the country.
Afghan President Karzai, with UN Chief Ban Ki-moon at the NATO summit
NATO leaders reaffirmed their long-term commitment to Afghanistan on Thursday with a document designed to bridge strategic divisions over the nature of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission.
The four-page "strategic vision" called on NATO members to maintain a "shared long-term commitment" to ISAF in its aim to help the people of Afghanistan "build an enduring, stable, secure, prosperous and democratic state" that is free of violence and terrorism.
"Today more nations stepped forward with offers that will raise that total again, and very substantially," NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said at a news conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Scheffer did not say how many troops were offered and referred specifically only to an offer by France to send an additional battalion, about 800 troops. But he said it satisfied a Canadian demand for reinforcements in its sector in southern Afghanistan.
The NATO-led force in Afghanistan currently numbers around 47,000 soliders.
Aiming for self-sufficiency
The document, endorsed by the 26 NATO members and by the 14 non-NATO countries which contribute forces to the UN-mandated operation, was welcomed by Karzai.
"I am thankful for the strategic vision that you have offered on behalf of ISAF ... Afghanistan is now better placed to take responsibility for its own security," said Karzai.
There are currently 47,000 NATO-led troops in Afghanistan
ISAF forces have been fighting the Taliban but have also been training the Afghan military to do the same. The document underlines the importance in making Afghan security forces self-sufficient and taking the lead in counter-insurgency operations. It also highlights helping the Afghan government to extend good governance, reconstruction and development throughout the country.
On Thursday, Karzai announced that as from August, Afghan forces would finally be able to take over security operations in the capital Kabul.
France steps up
Earlier Thursday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy confirmed that his country would be sending an additional 700 soldiers to the east, thus helping alleviate US and Canadian concerns that ISAF is
The offer came amid French plans for a return to NATO's military command next year after more than four decades of absence.
ISAF has grown by some 4,000 soldiers to about 47,000 in recent months, and more troops are ready to step in from Poland, the Czech Republic and other allies.
With their strategic vision document, the allies vowed to support the Afghan leadership, bring together civilian and military efforts, and increase cooperation with Afghanistan's neighbors, "especially Pakistan."
It also urged NATO members to provide "maximum possible flexibility" in the use of their troops and to fill the current shortfalls in manning levels - two issues which have sparked bitter disagreements in the past.
A deep rift had emerged within NATO over the past months, with some countries, spearheaded by the United States, insisting on the need to fight the insurgents and others, like Germany and Italy, placing the emphasis on the civilian nature of the ISAF mission.
Two in, three out
In a major rebuff to US President George W Bush who is attending the last summit of the transatlantic alliance as US president, European leaders kept Georgia and Ukraine waiting at NATO's doorstep Thursday. They did, however, welcome Albania and Croatia.
Bush, eager to burnish his foreign policy legacy in the waning months of a presidency tarnished by Iraq, had pushed hard for Georgia and Ukraine to be allowed into the NATO club.
Scheffer said NATO would offer Georgia and Ukraine "intensive engagement", along with a vague promise of membership sometime down the line.
"We agree today that these countries will become members of NATO," he told reporters. "That is quite something."
German Chancellor Merkel and French President Sarkozy opposed membership bids by Ukraine and Georgia
The membership bids of Ukraine and Georgia, two former Soviet Republics, are strongly opposed by Russia. Both Germany and France, wary of alienating Moscow, also resisted opening the door to Georgia and Ukraine.
Meanwhile, strong protests erupted in Skopje after Macedonia's bid for an invitation was effectively vetoed by Greece in a long-running dispute over Macedonia's official name.
Athens maintains that allowing its northern neighbor to call itself "Macedonia" would imply a territorial claim on the Greek province of the same name, and insists that it will not approve Macedonia's NATO membership until the issue is resolved.
Macedonian delegates walked out of the summit in response, with Foreign Minister Antonio Milososki accusing Greece of using an "irrelevant argument of ancient times."
Russia urged to link missile defences with US
On the thorny issue of a US missile defense shield in Europe, NATO leaders also asked experts to draw up options for a missile system that would complement the US anti-missile shield and provide cover to some allies left out in the cold, a statement said.
They also urged Russia to consider linking up its missile defences to the US shield -- despite Moscow's hostility towards it.
Washington said last year it wanted to install 10 missile interceptors in Poland and a radar base in the Czech Republic to cover US territory and that of some European allies, and wanted it operational by 2013. The shield is aimed at countering attacks from "rogue states" such as Iran but Russia fears it could pose a direct challenge to its security.