NATO leaders including US President Barack Obama, have arrived in Strasbourg, France, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Western security alliance, NATO. Part of the summit is also being held in the German city of Baden-Baden just across the River Rhine in Germany. After the success at the G-20 summit in London on Thursday, expectations are high that Mr Obama will be able to forge an agreement with NATO members on a series of crucial issues. But Obama has a bitter pill in his luggage for NATO leaders to swallow.
US President Barack Obama and his French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy greet the crowd in Strasbourg on Thursday
NATO should have every reason to celebrate its 60th anniversary. But the organisation finds itself facing public protests and internal difficulties. Top leaders of the Western Alliance, including President Barack Obama on his first visit to Europe, arrived here by helicopter amidst unprecedented security. 14,000 police have been called up to cordon off Baden-Baden while another 12,000 French paramilitary police have sealed off the entire city centre in Strasbourg where the first part of the summit is taking place. French police are still believed to be detaining over 100 protesters who were involved in violent clashes with the police on Thursday evening. Thousands more demonstrators are expected in the course of the day.
President Obama’s first official engagement here was a meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Although the meeting was primarily dictated by protocol with France as the host nation for the first round of talks at the NATO summit, it was vital for Obama to get off to a good start with the French President. After all, Sarkozy has just led France back into the NATO command structure after an absence of several decades. After their meeting Obama underlined that the United States had not, as he put it, had to drag France into Afghanistan. France recognised that safe-havens for Al-Qaida posed a threat. And Obama underlined once again that the Afghanistan mission was not a US mission but had international character. His words went down well with a visibly pleased President Sarkozy.
Thus Obama appears to have overcome the first hurdle in his talks here in Strasbourg. After all, he is here to seek backing for his new strategy on Afghanistan which many Europeans see as a continuation of the 'war on terror' policy of his predecessor in the White House, George W. Bush. After prolonged discussion within the new US Administration Obama recently announced that he will be sending 17,000 additional US troops to Afghanistan this year in what military officials are describing as a surge against the Taliban. This is in response to military gains by the Islamist extremist insurgency in Afghanistan in recent months. But at the same time Washington is stressing the need to improve training for Afghan security forces and plans to send some 4,000 additional experts to train Afghan police forces. There are also plans to strengthen institutions and civil society in the country.
But some Europeans have problems with an increased commitment to Afghanistan, not least because the Karsai Administration is planning to invoke legislation which would violate European concepts of human rights.
Focus on Pakistan
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. Thus, US officials are now talking about a combined strategy for both countries, known as the Afghan-Pak strategy in US government speak.
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.
Germany stresses on reconstruction
Germany has already indicated that it will not deploy its 3,500 troops to the south of the country where most of the fighting is taking place. While Chancellor Angela Merkel has expressed her support for the new US strategy, she has also clearly said that Germany wants to see a much greater stress on civil reconstruction. Her Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, has added that Berlin wants to see NATO partners emulate Germany’s policy of using the military for reconstruction.
At the summit NATO leaders are also expected to discuss future relations with Russia and perhaps the appointment of a new Secretary-General.