Woes and wins for NATO as it turns 60

March 31st, 2009 - 9:41 am ICT by IANS  

Taliban By Nicholas Rigillo
Brussels, March 31 (DPA) Heads of state and government from the member countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) gather in Strasbourg April 3-4 to mark their alliance’s 60th anniversary. But despite the fanfare, they will have few reasons to celebrate.

Leaders can expect few birthday gifts from Afghanistan, where their biggest-ever mission abroad has become increasingly unpopular as it struggles to silence the Taliban insurgency.

Despite initial signs of a rapprochement with Russia, Moscow has succeeded in effectively blocking the alliance’s plans to expand deep into Eastern European territory, with the applications of Georgia and Ukraine remaining on ice. Even the memberships of Croatia and Albania - which will be formalised at the summit - had been under threat of a Slovenian veto until just a week before the event.

And while NATO leaders will certainly toast the return of France to the bloc’s military command structure after an absence of 43 years, they will still need to work out their long-term strategy and cast aside their reluctance to committing more forces to NATO

missions at a time of deep economic crisis.

Regardless of the difficulties, there is ground for some optimism.

The odds that a big fight will break out, as witnessed during NATO’s last summit in Bucharest, are close to zero - not least because of the change of guard that has taken place in Washington since then.

US President Barack Obama has gone out of his way to distance himself from his predecessor, the often unilateralist George W. Bush, by reaching out to his allies.

Obama’s talk of a “comprehensive approach” for Afghanistan - including the need to boost the civilian side of the mission and involve other players in the region - as well as his overtures to Iran, have echoed longtime European demands and have resonated positively in the continent’s capitals.

As Richard Holbrooke, the US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said during a recent visit to NATO’s headquarters in Brussels: “I found a very encouraging symmetry of views between our NATO allies and other troop-contributing countries

and the United States.”

The NATO summit will be part of Obama’s maiden voyage to Europe.

But despite plenty of goodwill on the part of the continent’s leaders, diplomats say the US president will struggle to get them to match the additional US deployment of 17,000 soldiers to NATO’s 62,000-strong International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.

One of the most closely watched decisions expected to emerge from the summit is the choice of secretary general to lead the organisation over the next four years.

Denmark’s Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen is currently seen as the front-runner to replace Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, with candidates from Britain, Bulgaria, Poland, Canada and Norway also being mooted.

Last week, Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Store fuelled the pro-Rasmussen speculation by saying the next NATO chief “understands Norwegian”. Danes and Norwegians speak similar languages.

The April birthday bash is being held in three cities, Baden-Baden and Kehl in Germany, and Strasbourg, across the Rhine river in France.

The symbolic choice of venue is designed to mark 60 years of Franco-German reconciliation. One of the highlights of the two-day summit will see leaders pose for a family photograph on the bridge linking Strasbourg and Kehl.

Meanwhile, 25,000 protesters, including 3,000 potential troublemakers, will try to rain on their parade.

According to de Hoop Scheffer, the summit should above all underline the “remarkable achievements” of an organisation that during the course of its 60-year history has evolved into “the world’s premier security organisation”, contributing to “an

unprecedented period of peace”.

“But the summit must be more than a celebration” and “deliver results”, de Hoop Scheffer said.

These include placing the ISAF mission in Afghanistan “on the right course,” getting relations with Russia “back on track”, and making NATO’s military forces “more flexible and deployable”.

The alliance chief noted that the renewed engagement of the new US administration, as well as France’s return to its “full place in NATO’s military structures”, help make conditions “favourable”.

Now, it will be up to NATO leaders not to squander this political capital.

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