US President Barack Obama, after helping broker a deal to tackle the global economic crisis, headed to France yesterday to try to secure NATO backing for a new strategy to turn the tide in Afghanistan.
On his first major foreign trip since taking office on Jan. 20, he called Thursday’s accord at the G20 summit in London a “turning point” for the world economy.
He hopes for a similar breakthrough on the worsening crisis in Afghanistan and will look to other NATO leaders for support at the military alliance’s two-day summit being held on both the French and German sides of the Rhine.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Obama would start talking “specifics” at the NATO meeting and at an EU summit next week in Prague.
Obama unveiled a new strategy last week on Afghanistan that aims to get a grip on rising violence by Taliban militants driven from power in 2001 but never completely defeated.
It broadens the focus to include Pakistan and puts the highest priority on the defeat of al-Qaeda militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan who Obama says are plotting new attacks on the US.
Having already announced plans to add 17,000 more US combat troops to the 38,000 already there, Obama said he would send 4,000 more to help train the Afghan army and add civilian personnel to tackle problems such as the booming narcotics trade and government corruption.
He has stressed the need for international cooperation to turn the tide, with insurgent violence reaching its highest level since US-led forces toppled the Taliban in 2001.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai also said this week he needed regional cooperation to tackle terrorism.
The NATO mission has been criticized for disorganization, but European leaders have been reluctant to commit more forces to an increasingly unpopular war among voters.
Obama arrives in France in mid-morning and will hold bilateral talks with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and take part in a US-style “town hall” meeting, before hopping across the border for discussions with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The NATO summit starts in the evening with a dinner.
Anti-NATO demonstrators have vowed to disrupt the summit and riot police clashed with hundreds of protesters on Thursday in Strasbourg, repeatedly firing tear gas and rubber bullets and arresting around 200 youths.
Obama has said that countries that felt unable to commit more military forces to Afghanistan should at least boost help for the civilian effort.
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has called on other allies to send up to 4,000 more troops to help safeguard elections in August. He also wants them to make up a long-standing shortfall in training teams for the Afghan army and commit to a revamped police training mission under NATO command.
Obama’s national security adviser Jim Jones said US allies were signaling better cooperation on the military front, especially concerning security for the election.
“We have a national election coming up. Allies are considering how they might reinforce themselves,” he told reporters on a conference call with Clinton on Thursday in London. “So I expect there will be additional troop contributions.”
He said there was a new mood in NATO that “we’re all in this together, and we’ll wait and see exactly how far that takes us.”
But he and Clinton stopping short of naming which allies were willing to step up involvement and Clinton emphasized that the NATO gathering was “not a pledging conference.”