Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Judy Dempsey, "NATO rebuffs Bush on troop restrictions in Afghanistan," The New York Times, November 29, 2006.

RIGA, Latvia: Leaders of the 26 NATO nations failed to agree Wednesday on President Bush's demand that member countries with troops in Afghanistan lift their restrictions on how the troops are used. Those rules keep some soldiers from operating in the most dangerous part of the country.

Instead of lifting the restrictions entirely, France, Germany and Italy agreed to allow their troops to be sent in emergencies to bolster the NATO forces in the south, where Taliban forces have fought with renewed vigor.

The NATO leaders also unexpectedly opened the door to membership to Serbia by offering it partnership status, along with Bosnia and Montenegro. Up until now, the United States, Britain and the Netherlands have blocked Serbia because of its failure to arrest two men who led Serbian forces during the fighting in Bosnia - Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, who have been indicted for war crimes by the international tribunal in The Hague.

The offer Wednesday of offered partnership status - a step toward full membership - came with the condition that Serbia promise to try to capture the wanted pair and other figures charged with war crimes.

NATO's Secretary-General, Jaap de Hoop Schieffer, denied that the move constituted a softening of the alliance's position.

"We'll keep up the pressure," he said.

But Reuters quoted Carla del Ponte, the chief United Nations war crimes prosecutor, as saying she was "very surprised" and disappointed by the decision.

"It looks like a reward for not fully cooperating with the prosecutor," a spokesman for Ms. Ponte said.

Mr. Schieffer also defended the move by saying that Serbia is "an important player," and diplomats said the change of policy comes at a critical juncture for the entire Balkan region, which throughout much of the 1990's had been engulfed in civil war.

The United Nations Security Council has been debating the status of the Serb province of Kosovo, which has been under U.N. protection since 1999 after NATO fought a brief war against Serbia to stop its crackdown on ethnic Albanians in the region. A decision by the council is expected in the coming months, and the negotiations have already raised tensions with Russia, which has traditionally seen itself as the protector of the Serbs.

The ethnic Albanians in Kosovo have consistently demanded nothing less than full independence for the province, but Boris Tadic, Serb president, has so far supported the idea of wide autonomy.

Russia has also linked independence for Kosovo to independence laims by two breakaway regions backed by Moscow, Transnistria in Moldova and Abkhazia and Northern Ossetia in Georgia. But Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned against changing the status of Kosovo, but the Kremlin has also said it would not block any moves which were acceptable to Serbia.

One NATO diplomat said the Kosovo dispute was central to the decision to offering Serbia the opportunity to move toward membership in the alliance.

"We want to give Serbia a Euro-Atlantic perspective rather than just have it completely focus on Kosovo or even lean on the support of Russia," said the diplomat. who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to comment.

In Belgrade, Mr. Tadic hailed the decision as "great news for our citizens, army and the state," according to Agence France-Presse. He said that Serbia "must solve this problem" of capturing its war-crime fugitives.

The decision on Serbia was a departure from the planned agenda of the meeting, which was centered on Afghanistan.

Mr. Bush had come to the NATO summit, held here in the Baltic nation of Latvia, to argue for sending more troops to Afghanistan under fewer restrictions, a call echoed by Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain. Troops from Britain, Canadaand the Netherlands have taken heavy casualties in recent months.

But after the two-day summit, the question of troop numbers appeared unresolved, and the only agreement reached was one for more flexible deployment in emergencies.

The alliance issued a statement asserting that peace and stability in Afghanistan is a critical priority. The nations pledged to develop a "contact group" that will evaluate issues critical to Afghanistan's long-term stability.

The 26 member nations of the alliance, along with 11 partner countries, have committed 32,000 troops to Afghanistan. But many of those troops have been operating under geographic and operational limitations.

In a speech at Latvia University on Tuesday, Mr. Bush said NATO had transformed Afghanistan from "a totalitarian nightmare to a free nation." The NATO leaders have been meeting to chart the alliance's course in the coming decades. Though it was originally founded to protect Western Europe, its mission has expanded greatly since the end of the cold war, and there is fierce debate among member nations about whether the commitment of troops in Afghanistan should set a precedent for future NATO engagement, or be regarded as an aberration not to be repeated.

On Wednesday, the alliance took a step toward resolving that question, issuing a dense planning document - a "comprehensive political guidance," in NATO terms - that recognizes that NATO will have to grapple with terrorism in the future.

"Terrorism, increasingly global in scope and lethal in results, and the spread of weapons of mass destruction are likely to be the principal threats to the Alliance over the next 10 to 15 years," the document states.

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