Lisbon: President Barack Obama won NATO summit agreement on Friday to build a missile shield over Europe, an ambitious commitment to protect against Iranian attack while demonstrating the alliance`s continuing relevance — but at the risk of further aggravating Russia.
On another major issue, Obama and the allies are expected to announce plans on Saturday to begin handing off security responsibility in Afghanistan to local forces next year and to complete the transition by the end of 2014.
That end date is three years beyond the time that Obama has said he will start withdrawing US troops, and the challenge is to avoid a rush to the exits as public opinion turns more sharply against the war and Afghan President Hamid Karzai pushes for greater Afghan control.
While celebrating the missile shield decision, Obama also made a renewed pitch for Senate ratification back in the US of a nuclear arms treaty with Russia, asserting that Europeans believe rejection of the deal would hurt their security and damage relations with the Russians.
Two key unanswered questions about the missile shield — will it work and can the Europeans afford it — were put aside for the present in the interest of celebrating the agreement as a boost for NATO solidarity.
"It offers a role for all of our allies," Obama told reporters. "It responds to the threats of our times. It shows our determination to protect our citizens from the threat of ballistic missiles." He did not mention Iran by name, acceding to the wishes of NATO member Turkey, which had threatened to block the deal if its neighbour was singled out.
Under the arrangement, a limited system of US anti-missile interceptors and radars already planned for Europe — to include interceptors in Romania and Poland and possibly a radar in Turkey — would be linked to expanded European-owned missile defences. That would create a broad system that protects every NATO country against medium-range missile attack.
NATO plans to invite Russia to join the missile shield effort, although Moscow would not be given joint control. The gesture would mark a historic milestone for the alliance, created after World War II to defend Western Europe against the threat of an invasion by Soviet forces.
As for the US-Russia arms treaty, Obama was backed by NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen of Denmark, who told reporters that the treaty, called New START and signed last April by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, would improve security not only in Europe but beyond.
"I would strongly regret if it is delayed," Fogh Rasmussen said. "A delay would be damaging for security in Europe, and I urge all parties involved to ratify it." Obama needs 67 votes in the Senate for ratification, and many Republicans have balked at even taking a vote before the new, more heavily GOP Congress convenes in January.
The allies opened their summit by agreeing on the first rewrite of NATO`s basic mission — formally called its "strategic concept" — since 1999. They reaffirmed their bedrock commitment that an attack on one would be treated as an attack on all. In that context, the agreement to build a missile defence for all of Europe is meant to strengthen the alliance.
What remains in conflict, however, is the question of the future role of nuclear weapons in NATO`s basic strategy. The document members agreed to on Friday says NATO will retain an "appropriate mix of nuclear and conventional capabilities" to deter a potential aggressor. Germany and some other NATO members want US nuclear weapons withdrawn from Europe.
Non-government advocates of the German view were quick to criticise what they saw as a missed opportunity here for further nuclear disarmament.
"In an astonishing demonstration of weakness, NATO heads of state have failed to tackle the Cold War legacy of the deployment of US nuclear gravity bombs in Europe, threatening the credibility of NATO members` claims to be interested in non-proliferation and global disarmament," said Paul Ingram, executive director of the British American Security Information Council in London.
The spectre of continued stalemate in Afghanistan hung over the Lisbon summit.
Karzai will be joining the NATO allies for the Saturday session, and General David Petraeus, the top US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, is to make a closed-door presentation spelling out his vision of how to make a transition to Afghan control. Petraeus is expected to emphasise that stepped-up military operations this year, with the addition of thousands more US combat troops, have made strides toward weakening the Taliban and eventually creating the conditions for peace negotiations. But he also is believed to be concerned that the transition not turn into a departure before Afghanistan is stable.
Obama said Afghanistan, launch pad for the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, must get ready for the start of a shift away from reliance on US and NATO combat power "as we move toward a new phase, a transition to Afghan responsibility beginning in 2011 with Afghan forces taking the lead for security across Afghanistan by 2014”.
A key question: Will Afghan security forces and the central government be ready to take full responsibility by then?
Mark Sedwill, the top NATO civilian official in Afghanistan, told reporters in Lisbon that it was possible the transition could be completed before 2014, although it`s not yet clear whether even that date will mark the end of NATO combat there.
A member of Karzai`s delegation to the summit, former Afghan finance minister Ashraf Ghani, said in an interview that once 2014 is set as the target date, NATO needs to work with Kabul to establish milestones to get there.
"We as Afghans are responsive to our public opinion, and our public opinion is raising these issues, and what is fortunate is now, NATO has become ... a listening organisation," Ghani said on the sidelines of the summit.
Stating the US view in clear terms, Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell had said on Thursday that 2014 is an "aspirational goal”, not a deadline either for Afghan forces to take full control or for a complete withdrawal of US forces.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who met privately with Karzai on Friday, said earlier that despite the economic burdens faced by much of Europe and the US, she believes the war campaign must go on.