Afghanistan 'most important issue' for NATO

( USA TODAY )- Iraq may dominate the headlines more often, but when leaders of 26 NATO nations gather in Bucharest, Romania, this week for their annual summit, the war in Afghanistan will be the hot topic.

President Bush will seek more help against the resurgent Taliban from NATO allies reluctant to put troops at risk, particularly when public sentiment in Europe runs against a long-term commitment.

"This is the most important issue facing NATO. All the other issues are secondary," says James Goldgeier , senior fellow for transatlantic relations at the Council on Foreign Relations. "It really cuts to the core of whether or not this alliance is relevant to the 21st century."

Before the week is out, decisions will be made on NATO membership for three Balkan nations - Albania, Croatia and Macedonia. Two former Soviet republics, Ukraine and Georgia, will seek to begin the membership process. Russia opposes that effort, as well as U.S. missile-defense plans for Eastern Europe, so Bush will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi to try to smooth relations between the two old Cold Warriors.

Still, the NATO commitment in Afghanistan will dominate discussions. For nearly five years, NATO has led the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, a coalition of 40 nations. The United States, which has about 17,000 troops under the ISAF and 14,000 operating separately, has almost four times as many troops in Afghanistan as any other country.

Eight others - Britain, Germany, Italy, Canada, the Netherlands, France, Poland and Australia - have more than 1,000 troops stationed there. Seven countries have 10 or fewer; Georgia has one.

NATO members committed to boosting efforts in Afghanistan 16 months ago at a summit in Riga, Latvia. But last fall, NATO failed to come up with 3,000 additional troops sought by the United States. As a result, 3,200 Marines are being sent.

Canada has threatened to withdraw its troops. French President Nicolas Sarkozy indicated last week that he would commit an additional 1,000 troops on top of the 1,515 there. That's likely to be the best news out of Bucharest, despite Bush's call for more assistance.

"Frankly, the bar is low enough that 1,000 French troops would constitute success," says Philip Gordon, former director for European affairs at the National Security Council and a senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. "It's a saleable outcome, but it's far from perfect."

Bush was upbeat last week in an interview with foreign reporters. Sarkozy's additional commitment "will pretty much ensure that this conference is a successful conference, because nations will watch very carefully," he said. "It is a strong statement that NATO understands the threats, understands the challenges and is willing to rise to them."

National security adviser Stephen Hadley says Bush will stress "the need for all countries to make ( Afghanistan) a priority, the need for us to develop a more integrated strategy for success and the need for all of us to do more."

The French commitment could stop Canada from withdrawing, because it would free some U.S. troops to leave eastern Afghanistan and go south to help Canadian troops there.

But France's move isn't likely to spur much in the way of additional offers from other countries. Nor is it likely to prompt nations such as Germany, Italy or Spain to permit their troops to conduct counterinsurgency operations, as opposed to force protection and reconstruction work.

The United States has pushed repeatedly for these nations to lift such limits, which are also called caveats.

"I see no indication whatsoever that in Germany, there's any appetite either for major troop increases or for an expansion of the mission," says Charles Kupchan , a Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow.

The reaction in much of Europe, Goldgeier says, is " 'we didn't sign up for that.' "

Although the American public is more supportive of the war in Afghanistan than it is of the conflict in Iraq, some European allies see the U.S. effort in Afghanistan as unfocused, says Julianne Smith, Europe program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "You've got a little bit of finger-pointing going on," she says.

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