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Obama praises NATO allies on Afghanistan

STRASBOURG, France - President Barack Obama hailed "strongand unanimous support" from NATO allies on Saturday for hisstepped-up anti-terror strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan andwelcomed their "down payment" promises of 5,000 fresh forces.

The allies rebuffed U.S. appeals for more combat forces to jointhe war, but the backing Obama did gain at a European summitallowed him to claim an early victory on the world's foreign policystage.

NATO allies agreed to send up to 5,000 more military trainersand police to Afghanistan, including forces to help protectcandidates and voters at upcoming elections.

Obama called that "a strong down payment" on both Afghanistanand NATO itself at the end of a gathering celebrating the 60thanniversary of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

He waved off questions on whether the size and makeup of thecommitments were disappointing in light of an anti-terrorismstruggle he himself portrayed as daunting. Since becomingpresident, Obama has begun switching America's anti-terror emphasisto fighting al-Qaida in the Afghanistan-Pakistan area as the war inIraq winds down.

The new president insisted that "terrorists threaten everymember of NATO," but he also said he had no intention of trying todictate to European countries the scope of their contributions.

"This was not a pledging conference," he told a wrap-up newsbriefing packed with both American and foreign journalists. "Wecame expecting consensus and we're gratified getting thatconsensus."

He said more help of all kinds will be needed. But he also said,"I am pleased that our NATO allies pledged their strong andunanimous support for our new strategy."

Among countries resisting U.S. appeals for more combat troopswere France, which on Saturday rejoined the alliance as a fullmilitary partner after decades of being a nonmilitary member, andGermany.

Obama weighed in on a controversial new law in Afghanistan, hisremarks underscoring his administration's shift away from a U.S.focus on building democracy in the country.

Asked about the law, which a United Nations agency says makes itlegal for men to rape their wives, Obama called it "abhorrent."He also noted that Afghan President Hamid Karzai has said the lawwill be studied and possibly sent back to parliament for review --and that the NATO conference's closing statement specificallystates that human rights should be respected.

But Obama said pointedly that, while improving conditions inAfghanistan is a commendable goal, people need to remember that theprimary reason U.S. troops are fighting there is to protectAmericans at home from terrorist attacks.

As for new troops, the White House said NATO countries agreed tosend more personnel, including about 3,000 on short-termdeployments, to help stabilize Afghanistan before elections inAugust. An additional 1,400 to 2,000 will provide training forAfghanistan's national army.

Obama said those figures should not be considered a ceiling,suggesting more could be sought and offered at some point toconfront a threat that he emphasized endangers Europe as well asthe U.S.

"We'll need more resources and a sustained effort to achieveour ultimate goals," he said.

His concluding news conference was dominated by foreign policyquestions, mostly about the conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan,a change of pace given the severity of the global economic downturnthat world leaders focused on in London earlier in the week. Morethan 5 million Americans have lost their jobs in the recession, andthe downturn has spread throughout much of the globe.

Obama conceded that the dire economies of European and otherworld powers made it even harder for them to come up with more helpfor NATO conflicts. He said he appreciated the strides the allieswere making.

During the Bush administration, U.S. military leaders repeatedlypressed for more troops and funds for Afghanistan training fromNATO and European allies. Even before Saturday's commitments,senior U.S. commanders were pegging future strategy to theassumption that NATO's contributions would be minimal.

Last week, Gen. David Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Commandand architect of the new military strategy, told Congress that theWhite House will soon be mulling a request for 10,000 more Americantroops to be deployed in Afghanistan next year -- a bluntacknowledgment that the U.S. will continue to take the brunt of thefighting and casualties.

Still, Petraeus carefully acknowledged that more civilian aid --along the lines of NATO's new commitment emerging from the summit --was also critical.

Along with the divide over troops and money, the Europeans havealso long been reluctant to accept the U.S. view that al-Qaida and,to a lesser extent, the Taliban, remain a threat to the existenceof democratic societies.

The war in Afghanistan more and more is looking like an Americanwar, and the U.S. will continue to do the bulk of the heavy liftingeven with the new NATO pledges. Since Obama took office in January,the United States has committed to sending 21,000 additional troopsas part of his new strategy.

Obama left the summit for Prague, where he will meet with CzechPresident Vaclav Klaus and Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, and givea speech expected to focus on weapons proliferation. Then he visitsTurkey, his first Muslim country as president, with stops in boththe capital of Ankara and Istanbul before returning to Washingtonnext Tuesday.


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