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Obama, Afghanistan to hold centre stage at NATO summit

By Siegfried Mortkowitz, IANS,

Paris : This week’s NATO summit celebrating the 60th anniversary of the alliance’s founding is viewed by many participants as a new beginning, featuring a new US president, new threats, a new war and perhaps a new relationship with an old foe.

Fittingly, a new NATO secretary general may be named during the summit, which takes place April 3-4 both in the French city of Strasbourg and the German city of Kehl. The co-hosting of the summit by France and Germany is also unprecedented.

A number of Western diplomats and officials discussed the summit with journalists this week, but spoke only on condition that they not be named because they were not authorised to talk on record.

A French government official said the summit would mark an important change in US diplomacy with the first appearance of President Barack Obama at a NATO summit, putting an end to the unilateral approach of his predecessor, George W. Bush.

“There will now be a more collective approach,” the official said. “The page of Iraq has been turned.”

Obama’s presence may also help usher in a new relationship with NATO’s traditional adversary, Russia. Moscow’s relations with the alliance and with Washington will be an important, and difficult, talking point at the summit, officials agreed.

A French official in favour of closer relations with Moscow said: “Russia is not a threat but a partner, a difficult partner, but not an adversary.”

It is likely that agreement will be found at least on continuing talks with Russia about deepening its ties with the alliance.

There will very likely also be agreement on alliance strategy regarding its newest war – the conflict in Afghanistan – now that Obama is no longer insisting that NATO allies deploy more fighting troops there.

Europeans have agreed to increase their commitment in helping build up Afghanistan’s civilian sector by boosting financial aid and training Afghan security forces.

“There is a real recognition that the training (of Afghan army and police) is a genuine military requirement” that will boost NATO’s grab-hold-build strategy, a Western diplomat said.

Senior US officials said what was needed to stabilise the country was security for elections, the deployment of training teams, an enlargement of the Afghan national army, police training and a counter-narcotics programme.

All officials agreed that strategy for Afghanistan would be the main political issue of the summit.

However, it will also be part of a larger discussion, that of a new strategic concept based on new global threats such as nuclear proliferation, cyber-terrorism and securing energy sources.

“The new strategy will be more efficient, more reactive, more supple and one in which Europeans are able to play their role fully,” a French official said.

France’s return to NATO’s command structure, after an absence of 43 years, will serve to increase the role of Europe in the alliance, with Europe eventually perhaps given one of the two top NATO commands and two of three regional command posts.

Currently, both top commands and two of the three regional commands are in the hands of the Americans.

Finally, a new secretary general may be named at the summit to replace the outgoing Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. The front-runner for the post is Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, but his selection is far from certain.

A British official said it would be “no catastrophe” if a new NATO head was not named during the summit, since Hoop Scheffer’s mandate does not end until July 31.

Finally, the summit is also noteworthy for the issues that might have been treated, but will not be, such as enlargement.

Croatia and Albania, which have formally joined the alliance, will be attending the the summit, bringing the number of members to 28. But the potentially controversial discussion of admitting Georgia and Ukraine has been put off until at least the end of the year.

There will also be no talk of Kosovo, “because things are calm there now”, one diplomat said.

And, finally, the subject of the deployment of a US anti-missile defence system has also been put off pending the outcome of further tests.