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Obama hails 5,000 more NATO forces for Afghanistan

First Posted: 05/05/09 06:12 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 02:10 PM ET

Barack Obama

STRASBOURG, France — President Barack Obama hailed "strong and unanimous support" from NATO allies on Saturday for his stepped-up anti-terror strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan and welcomed their "down payment" promises of 5,000 fresh forces.

The allies rebuffed U.S. appeals for more combat forces to join the war, but the backing Obama did gain at a European summit allowed him to claim an early victory on the world's foreign policy stage.

NATO allies agreed to send up to 5,000 more military trainers and police to Afghanistan, including forces to help protect candidates and voters at upcoming elections.

Obama called that "a strong down payment" on both Afghanistan and NATO itself at the end of a gathering celebrating the 60th anniversary of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

He waved off questions on whether the size and makeup of the commitments were disappointing in light of an anti-terrorism struggle he himself portrayed as daunting. Since becoming president, Obama has begun switching America's anti-terror emphasis to fighting al-Qaida in the Afghanistan-Pakistan area as the war in Iraq winds down.

The new president insisted that "terrorists threaten every member of NATO," but he also said he had no intention of trying to dictate to European countries the scope of their contributions.

"This was not a pledging conference," he told a wrap-up news briefing packed with both American and foreign journalists. "We came expecting consensus and we're gratified getting that consensus."

He said more help of all kinds will be needed. But he also said, "I am pleased that our NATO allies pledged their strong and unanimous support for our new strategy."

Among countries resisting U.S. appeals for more combat troops were France, which on Saturday rejoined the alliance as a full military partner after decades of being a nonmilitary member, and Germany.

Obama weighed in on a controversial new law in Afghanistan, his remarks underscoring his administration's shift away from a U.S. focus on building democracy in the country.

Asked about the law, which a United Nations agency says makes it legal for men to rape their wives, Obama called it "abhorrent." He also noted that Afghan President Hamid Karzai has said the law will be studied and possibly sent back to parliament for review _ and that the NATO conference's closing statement specifically states that human rights should be respected.

But Obama said pointedly that, while improving conditions in Afghanistan is a commendable goal, people need to remember that the primary reason U.S. troops are fighting there is to protect Americans at home from terrorist attacks.

As for new troops, the White House said NATO countries agreed to send more personnel, including about 3,000 on short-term deployments, to help stabilize Afghanistan before elections in August. An additional 1,400 to 2,000 will provide training for Afghanistan's national army.

Obama said those figures should not be considered a ceiling, suggesting more could be sought and offered at some point to confront a threat that he emphasized endangers Europe as well as the U.S.

"We'll need more resources and a sustained effort to achieve our ultimate goals," he said.

His concluding news conference was dominated by foreign policy questions, mostly about the conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a change of pace given the severity of the global economic downturn that world leaders focused on in London earlier in the week. More than 5 million Americans have lost their jobs in the recession, and the downturn has spread throughout much of the globe.

Obama conceded that the dire economies of European and other world powers made it even harder for them to come up with more help for NATO conflicts. He said he appreciated the strides the allies were making.

During the Bush administration, U.S. military leaders repeatedly pressed for more troops and funds for Afghanistan training from NATO and European allies. Even before Saturday's commitments, senior U.S. commanders were pegging future strategy to the assumption that NATO's contributions would be minimal.

Last week, Gen. David Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command and architect of the new military strategy, told Congress that the White House will soon be mulling a request for 10,000 more American troops to be deployed in Afghanistan next year _ a blunt acknowledgment that the U.S. will continue to take the brunt of the fighting and casualties.

Still, Petraeus carefully acknowledged that more civilian aid _ along the lines of NATO's new commitment emerging from the summit _ was also critical.

Along with the divide over troops and money, the Europeans have also long been reluctant to accept the U.S. view that al-Qaida and, to a lesser extent, the Taliban, remain a threat to the existence of democratic societies.

The war in Afghanistan more and more is looking like an American war, and the U.S. will continue to do the bulk of the heavy lifting even with the new NATO pledges. Since Obama took office in January, the United States has committed to sending 21,000 additional troops as part of his new strategy.

Obama left the summit for Prague, where he will meet with Czech President Vaclav Klaus and Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, and give a speech expected to focus on weapons proliferation. Then he visits Turkey, his first Muslim country as president, with stops in both the capital of Ankara and Istanbul before returning to Washington next Tuesday.

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Filed by Nicholas Sabloff  |