Lisbon: President Barack Obama and NATO's 27 other leaders open a two-day summit Friday on keeping the Cold War alliance relevant — but the meeting is being overshadowed by the escalating war in Afghanistan, where the alliance is struggling to contain Taliban militants.
NATO officials say they expect unanimous support from the allies for Obama's plans for a new, expanded missile defense system in Europe that would be based on an existing shield meant to defend military units from attack. The US already has a missile defense system based mainly in North America, and it is planning one for its European allies.
But Obama will face tough questions from US allies on his exit strategy in Afghanistan. He will also meet with leaders of the European Union on Saturday to defend his preference for stimulus spending at a time when many European nations are enacting economic austerity measures.
The leaders are expected on Saturday to endorse a plan by Gen. David Petraeus, the top US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, to start handing over responsibility for security in some areas of Afghanistan to government forces in 2011. The plan is to end the alliance's combat role by 2014 if conditions on the ground allow, but to retain significant forces in the country after that to train and advise the Afghan army and police.
The alliance's target is in line with Afghan President Hamid Karzai's goal of having his forces take the main responsibility for security by 2014, Obama said in an interview published Friday in El Pais, Spain's leading newspaper.
Obama also told the paper he expected the allies will pledge additional trainers for Afghan security forces.
"This effort is going to take time and our commitment to Afghanistan and the Afghan people is for the long-term," Obama said. "We cannot turn our backs on the Afghan people."
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton defended the high cost that European nations are paying for their participation in the war in Afghanistan, and urged them to stay the course despite dire economic difficulties for many countries that have translated into wage cuts, lost jobs and massive government budget reductions.
"Though we are very supportive of the difficult decisions that will have to be made concerning the economy, just as back home President Obama is making difficult decisions concerning our own economy, we believe that the mission we are pursuing in Afghanistan must continue," Clinton told reporters.
The alliance has 140,000 troops in Afghanistan, two-thirds of them Americans. The government's security forces are being built up to just over 300,000 members. Their Taliban opponents are estimated to number up to 30,000 men.
On other issues, NATO's newly expanded anti-missile shield would cost euro200 million ($273 million) over the next 10 years, said NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who also wants Russia to cooperate in the project. Despite claims by protesters that debt-plagued Europe can't afford it amid austerity cuts, alliance officials insisted the project is worth it.
"We think it's a good thing to have a missile defense system which is NATO-based," Britain's Defense Secretary Liam Fox told BBC Radio 4's Today program. "That provides us with communal protection over the years ahead, it's cost-effective for us, and there are some 30 countries now which either have or are developing ballistic missiles that this will give us protection from."
NATO's leaders will not explicitly identify any potential enemy, although in the past officials have publicly singled out Iran and its ballistic missile program. But alliance member Turkey, which maintains close ties with Tehran, has refused to let NATO name Iran as a threat.
"We cannot accept that any specific country (including) our neighbor Iran to be shown as a target," Turkish President Abdullah Gul said. "It is absolutely out of the question."
Founded in 1949 to counter the threat of a Soviet invasion, the 28-member alliance is in the midst of a mid-life crisis as it searches for relevance almost 20 years after the collapse of its communist rival.
Other elements of NATO's new mission statement expected to be adopted Friday include new roles such as cyber-warfare and missions outside NATO's traditional area in Europe, such as anti-piracy patrols off the Somali coastline.
NATO's previous strategic concept focused mainly on its peacekeeping role in places like Bosnia and Kosovo. It was adopted in 1999, soon after the end of the Cold War and before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States forced the alliance to take on missions such as counterinsurgency warfare in Afghanistan.
The new document will warn European governments not to slash defense spending at a time of economic crisis, because of the growing discrepancy in military capabilities between the United States and Europe's NATO members. Most European nations are not even meeting the minimal requirement of devoting 2 percent of their GDP to defense.
America's latest defense budget of over $710 billion dwarfs the combined annual military expenditures of its European allies, which total about $280 billion.
Allied commanders have highlighted successes this year against Taliban insurgents in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, to emphasize that transition is ready.
But allied casualties have also reached record levels of some 650 dead this year, and the Taliban have spread out into parts of Afghanistan where they were not active before.
Failure in Afghanistan could leave alliance members questioning whether NATO's nation-building goals in the embattled country have been worth the cost, and whether they will support similar missions in the future, a RAND Corporation study said Friday.
First Published: Friday, November 19, 2010, 18:24