President Barack Obama pressed NATO to step up efforts to stabilize Afghanistan, warning that terror groups based there are more likely to attack European countries than the United States.
Obama headed for his first North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit with an appeal for alliance solidarity in the face of a resurgent Taliban as the Afghan war drags through its eighth year.
“It can’t just be a military strategy,” Obama said at a town hall meeting in Strasbourg, France before the summit. “But there will be a military component to it, and Europe should not simply expect the United States to shoulder that burden alone.”
Obama’s plan to send an additional 17,000 combat troops puts a stronger American stamp on the fighting in Afghanistan, pressuring the rest of the 28-nation alliance to send more troops, trainers and money.
Obama expects the two-day summit, starting tonight with a dinner on the German side of the Rhine River, to yield more troops to provide security for Afghanistan’s Aug. 20 elections and financial contributions for the Afghan army, administration officials said.
“I expect there will be additional troop contributions,” National Security Adviser James Jones told reporters yesterday. He also said the U.S. is counting on donations to a NATO trust fund that needs $2 billion annually to recruit and train Afghan soldiers.
European reinforcements have come bit by bit, including a pledge by Belgium today to deploy two additional F-16 fighter jets with 25 crewmembers in July and 35 more military trainers and four instructors in November.
As part of a strategy to hand more of the frontline fighting to local troops, NATO is seeking to build up the Afghan army to 134,000 troops by the end of 2011 from 79,000 now.
Speaking at a news conference earlier alongside French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Obama declined to criticize France for refusing to send more combat troops to join a French battalion based in the hard-fought east of the country.
Sarkozy said France is “prepared to do more” by sending military police, offering trainers for Afghan security forces and supplying more economic aid.
Obama saluted France’s efforts, saying “I’ve not had to drag France kicking and screaming into Afghanistan.” He praised Sarkozy for understanding that terror groups entrenched in Afghanistan can strike Europe first.
‘Attack in Europe’
“It is probably more likely that al-Qaeda would be able to launch a serious terrorist attack in Europe than in the United States because of proximity,” Obama said.
Insurgent activity in Afghanistan rose last year to the highest level since 2001, partly coming from across the border in Pakistan. Insurgents are using Pakistan’s mountainous tribal areas as a staging base, operating from the same territory as the U.S.-armed rebels who fought against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Obama’s build-up, plus the dispatch of 4,000 trainers for the Afghan army, will increase the U.S. troop presence to around 59,000, not counting support personnel. American commanders in Afghanistan have requested 10,000 more troops on top of that, Army General David Petraeus told a Senate committee in Washington yesterday.
Other allies have mustered 32,000 soldiers, led by 8,300 from Britain. Some countries, such as Germany and Spain, have ruled out sending forces into the battle-scarred south of the country.
Boost Europe’s Military
“We would like to see Europe have much more robust defense capabilities,” Obama said. “The more capability we see here in Europe, the happier the United States will be, the more effective we will be in coordinating our activities.”
Inter-allied tensions and the lack of a clear exit strategy have led some countries to consider pulling out. Canada and the Netherlands, both with soldiers on the front lines, plan at least partial withdrawals by 2011.
Obama shied away from criticizing European allies, saying the U.S. bears some of the blame for NATO’s “drift” and calling on Europe to help rebuild the partnership.
“There have been times when America has shown arrogance, been dismissive,” Obama said at the town hall meeting. “But in Europe there’s an anti-Americanism that is once casual but can also be insidious.”