Russia, Afghanistan top NATO agenda

Image: Barack Obama
Heads of State of NATO member countries are gathering in Portugal for a two-day summit to discuss topics such as Afghanistan and missile defense.Andre Kosters / EPA
/ Source: msnbc.com news services

NATO will invite Russia to take part in a U.S.-European missile defense shield at a summit on Saturday, a move that would herald the closest cooperation between the powers since the end of the Cold War.

President Barack Obama won NATO summit agreement Friday to build the 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.

Russia will be invited to be involved in the system when President Dmitry Medvedev meets Obama and other NATO leaders at the summit in Portugal, but it remains unclear what role Moscow might play.

The system would be designed to defend against intercontinental ballistic missiles fired from Iran or North Korea, but Russia is reluctant to join a program that defines Iran as a potential missile threat.

NATO member Turkey also is opposed to identifying Iran, a neighbor and ally, as a possible aggressor. NATO sources said leaders had agreed not to name Iran in a statement that will refer to the missile shield, securing Turkey's support.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen will hope language can be found to satisfy Russia and make the missile defense cooperation possible.

Afghan handoff
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 U.S. 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.

Russia, which fought its own campaign in Afghanistan from 1979-89 before withdrawing in defeat, is expected to agree to help NATO in the conflict, allowing equipment to move across its territory and providing specialized helicopters.

Moscow is expected to sell 18 Mi-17 helicopters to the United States and lend three more to Afghan forces. The Mi-17 is better suited to operating in Afghanistan's high altitudes and cold weather than equivalent U.S. helicopters.

But Russia has ruled out any suggestion that it could get involved on the ground in Afghanistan, where NATO is struggling for success after 10 years of fighting.

While celebrating the missile shield decision, Obama on Friday made a renewed pitch for Senate ratification 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.

Something to celebrate
The president celebrated the missile shield 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."

Under the arrangement, a limited system of U.S. 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 defenses. That would create a broad system that protects every NATO country against medium-range missile attack.

NATO was created after World War II to defend Western Europe against the threat of an invasion by Soviet forces.

As for the U.S.-Russia arms treaty, Obama was backed by NATO's Rasmussen of Denmark, who told reporters that the treaty, called New START and signed last April by Obama and Medvedev, would improve security not only in Europe but beyond.

"I would strongly regret if it is delayed," 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 defense 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 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 U.S. nuclear weapons withdrawn from Europe.

Non-government advocates of the German view were quick to criticize 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 U.S. 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.

Afghan issue remains
The specter of continued stalemate in Afghanistan hung over the Lisbon summit.

Karzai is scheduled to join the NATO allies for the Saturday session, and Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. 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 emphasize that stepped-up military operations this year, with the addition of thousands more U.S. 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 Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, must get ready for the start of a shift away from reliance on U.S. 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 member of Karzai's delegation to the summit, former Afghan finance minister Ashraf Ghani, said in an Associated Press 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 organization," Ghani said on the sidelines of the summit.