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NATO Leaders Focus On Afghanistan, But Most Reject Obama's Plea For Troops (SLIDESHOW)

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STRASBOURG, France — On the eve of the NATO summit, President Barack Obama didn't get what he wanted most from U.S. allies: significant new commitments of combat troops for Afghanistan.

Faced with stiff public opposition to war, reluctant European leaders on Friday offered only limited aid for civilians and some troops to help train Afghan police and soldiers.
Afghanistan was the theme to which a frustrated Obama returned over and over throughout the day. "This is a joint problem, and it requires a joint effort," he said.

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The summit's co-hosts, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, both were quick to offer support for Obama's new Afghan strategy of sending American reinforcements and bolstering Afghan forces. But they went no further.

"We totally endorse and support America's new strategy in Afghanistan," Sarkozy said a joint news conference with Obama after they met.

After her own talks with the president later in the afternoon, Merkel said: "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."

Afghanistan was a key issue at a working dinner of all NATO leaders. "This is our No. 1 operational priority," NATO spokesman James Appathurai said.

As the leaders talked, protesters clashed for a second day with French police, injuring two officers. With more protests to come, the efforts to disrupt the summit signaled the unhappiness of many Europeans for the faraway war, especially at a time of global economic crisis.

Backing from Sarkozy and Merkel is vital for Obama, as he seeks to convince NATO that a greater effort by all is the only way to defeat the escalating Taliban insurgency. U.S. diplomats said the administration was aware of the domestic pressures on their allies and would not press the issue.

What the Europeans had to offer concretely fell short of Obama's expectations, in part because many of their citizens believe that what is needed is a political solution and civilian aid to rebuild Afghanistan _ not more combat troops.

Obama plans to add 21,000 U.S. soldiers and Marines to the 38,000 Americans already fighting militants. His strategy also calls for increased focus on boosting the capabilities of Afghanistan's police and army and improving the effectiveness of the government in Kabul.

The president was to brief his fellow leaders about the new strategy at a formal dinner Friday in the German spa resort of Baden-Baden.

NATO officials said they expected the Europeans to pledge four more infantry battalions to provide security in the run-up to Afghanistan's general elections in August.

NATO has a force of about 58,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, of which about 26,000 are Americans. The other 12,000 U.S. troops operate under a separate command.

British officials traveling to the summit with Prime Minister Gordon Brown told reporters he would offer to send more troops to Afghanistan _ but the offer depended upon other NATO members sending additional forces, Britain's Press Association said. Officials said the number would likely be in the "mid- to high hundreds." Britain now has 8,000 soldiers in Afghanistan.

Spain, too, said it would increase the force it has in Afghanistan _ currently numbering about 770 soldiers _ with a small contingent to help train Afghan army officers.

Belgium said it would add some 65 soldiers to the 500 it has in Afghanistan and send two more F-16 jet fighters. It also plans to double its financial aid to an annual euro12 million ($14.5 million).

In addition to Afghanistan, the summit will look at repairing the alliance's relations with Russia, which were frozen after last year's Russo-Georgian war.

Russia has become increasingly important as an alternate supply route for NATO forces in Afghanistan since insurgents stepped up attacks on the main logistics route through Pakistan. Moscow has offered NATO the use of its railways and roads to move supplies from Europe to Central Asia.

NATO also wants Russia to provide the Afghan government with airlift support as well as equipment and spare parts for its Soviet-era weaponry.

There was agreement among NATO leaders "that Russia is a great European power, a partner with which NATO must cooperate and wants to cooperate," Appathurai, the alliance spokesman, said.

He said that the NATO-Russia Council _ a joint body whose work was suspended after the war in Georgia _ would hold its first meeting in coming weeks and that a meeting between NATO's and Russia's foreign ministers was expected in May.

In internal matters, the alliance planned discussions on a major leadership change, with Dutch diplomat Jaap de Hoop Scheffer's term as NATO secretary-general running out Aug. 1.

Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen has emerged as the top candidate despite opposition from Turkey. Fogh Rasmussen infuriated many Muslims by speaking out in favor of freedom of speech during an uproar over Danish newspapers' publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in 2006.

Appathurai said the leaders discussed the succession issue, but made no decision.

___

Associated Press writer Deborah Seward contributed to this report.

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