Obama, NATO chief discuss Afghanistan war, Russia

11:51, 26 March 2009
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Obama said he...

President Barack Obama and NATO`s chief discussed how to more effectively fight Islamic militants in Afghanistan and achieve Obama`s goal of putting U.S.-Russian relations on a stronger footing, according to AP.

Obama said he hoped Wednesday`s 45-minute session with Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and the upcoming new U.S. plan for Afghanistan would "invigorate" NATO participation in the U.S.-led operation, now in its eighth year.

The United States has about 38,000 troops in Afghanistan, and is the largest contributor to a joint NATO force. NATO also has about 30,000 non-U.S. troops in the country. Obama has approved sending an additional 17,000 American troops this spring and summer, but has emphasized the need for a broader, unified international approach.

Ahead of NATO`s summit in early April, the French and German ambassadors said their governments had not been asked to contribute more troops, but said commitment to the fight was solid. "We are prepared to stay as long as necessary," said the French ambassador, Pierre Vimont. German has 3,400 troops in Afghanistan and has been bolstering its force, Ambassador Klaus Scharioth said.

On Russia, Obama said he wants to improve ties with Moscow in a context consistent with NATO membership. The alliance was founded after World War II to counter Soviet expansion in Europe. De Hoop Scheffer said that NATO and Russia should not hide their differences, but air them in careful negotiations.

The president also sought to assure the NATO chief, who retires this summer, that his administration would not seek to strengthen Russian relations at the expense of alliance solidarity.

"My administration is seeking a reset of the relationship with Russia, but in a way that`s consistent with NATO membership and consistent with the need to send a clear signal throughout Europe that we are going to be abide by the central belief that countries who seek and aspire to join NATO are able to join NATO," Obama said, with de Hoop Scheffer sitting next to him in the Oval Office.

Russia has strongly opposed bids by two of its former Soviet neighbors, Georgia and Ukraine, to join the Western alliance.

"NATO needs Russia and Russia needs NATO," de Hoop Scheffer said. "So let`s work on the things we agree on and let`s not hide our disagreements. Let us realize that also this relationship can and, in my opinion, should be strengthened."

Another issue that has soured U.S.-Russian ties is a missile defense system planned for Europe.

The German ambassador spoke skeptically of any U.S. decision to deploy radar in the Czech Republic and interceptor missiles in Poland. The Bush administration envisioned the project as a defense against missile attack by Iran.

The Obama administration, however, is taking its time.

"There is no hurry," Scharioth said. "We don`t know what it will cost. We don`t know if it will work." The diplomat said the issue would be discussed at the NATO summit and should be taken up in talks between NATO and Russia.

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