Afghanistan a ‘litmus test’ for NATO, say leaders (Second Lead)

April 4th, 2009 - 7:16 pm ICT by IANS  

Taliban Strasbourg (France), April 4 (DPA) Describing Afghanistan as a “litmus test” for NATO, leaders of the 60-year-old alliance Saturday began talks on defeating the Taliban insurgency and preventing the warn-torn country from becoming a haven for Al Qaeda terrorists.
“Afghanistan is a litmus test for us all,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the NATO summit’s co-host along with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Merkel praised US President Barack Obama for his new strategy on Afghanistan and said her country was ready to contribute more soldiers, trainers and money towards “the Afghanistanisation” of the country.

Sarkozy also lauded Obama’s new approach to the conflict, which involves speeding up Afghan reconstruction and involving other regional players such as India, Pakistan and Iran.

Obama and NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer then formally welcomed Albania and Croatia into the alliance, with the US president offering leaders of the two countries a copy of NATO’s 1949 founding treaty.

However, the second day of the two-day summit was marred by the leaders’ failure to agree on a new NATO chief.

Despite strong pressure by Obama, Merkel and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Turkey refused to lift its objections to naming Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen as de Hoop Scheffer’s successor.

The Turks strongly object to Rasmussen because of his handling of the 2005 and 2006 row over caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed that appeared in the Danish media and angered large sections of the Muslim world.

The controversy also caused a stir early Saturday during the ceremonial crossing of the Rhine River from Germany to France, when Berlusconi chose to call Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan rather than join other leaders on the Passerelles des Deux Rives bridge.

During the Afghan talks, Obama was expected to ask European governments to contribute more troops, at least to secure the elections, as well as additional funds, police trainers and other material.

On Friday, government officials in London said Britain would send extra troops to Afghanistan “subject to appropriate burden sharing” by other NATO allies.

The “temporary troop increase” would be aimed at providing security during the presidential elections.

The French daily Le Figaro reported that Europe could propose sending a 500-strong force of gendarmes to aid the Afghan police. France, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Portugal and Turkey have reportedly pledged to contribute to this force.

In addition, the daily El Pais reported Thursday that Spain will beef up its troops in Afghanistan, from the current 780 to more than 1,000 soldiers.

As the NATO leaders met, groups of anti-NATO protesters skirmished with police in central Strasbourg.

Ironically singing “Happy Birthday, NATO” and waving rainbow-coloured banners, the young demonstrators were met by teargas canisters fired by groups of police officers in riot gear.

Some 10,000 police officers and gendarmes were deployed in and around the city, whose downtown districts were otherwise as deserted as a ghost town.

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