WARSAW -- NATO leaders shifted the focus to conflict-plagued Afghanistan and Ukraine on Day Two of a summit that produced a plan to deploy military forces to member-states near the border of an increasingly assertive Russia.
The 28-nation Western alliance is set to extend its Resolute Support mission, which trains and advises Afghan security forces following the withdrawal of the bulk of foreign troops at the end of 2014.
NATO is also expected to continue financing Afghan forces with about $4 billion a year through 2020.
“We are committed to assisting the Afghan forces to secure their country and to ensure it never again becomes a safe haven for international terrorism,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said ahead of the July 8-9 summit in Warsaw.
U.S.-led forces entered Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks in 2001 and drove the Taliban, which had harbored Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, from power.But the insurgents have not been defeated and by some accounts now hold more territory than at any time since 2001.
U.S. President Barack Obama announced on July 6 that the United States would keep 8,400 troops in Afghanistan through the end of his term in January 2017, the latest in a series of decisions to slow the drawdown of U.S. forces there.
Ahead of the NATO summit, Obama said his decision “should encourage more allies and partners to affirm their commitment to the NATO mission to train Afghan forces.”
Resolute Support now involves about 13,000 troops from 39 countries.
In the afternoon of the second and final day of the Warsaw summit, alliance leaders are to meet with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko for a session of the NATO-Ukraine Commission.
NATO’s moves to bolster its defenses in the east have been prompted largely by concerns about the intentions of Russia, which seized the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in March 2014 and backs separatists whose war with Kyiv’s forces has killed more than 9,300 people in eastern Ukraine since that April.
A French- and German-brokered peace deal known as the Minsk agreement imposed a cease-fire, but it is violated frequently and the separatists continue to hold parts of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Progress on political aspects of the Minsk agreement, which was meant to resolve the conflict and restore Kyiv’s control over Ukraine’s entire border with Russia, has been slow.
On the first day of the summit, July 8, NATO leaders from the 28 members formally authorized four multinational battalions of up to 1,000 troops to be stationed on a rotating basis in Poland and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
They will be led by the United States, Canada, Britain, and Germany.
“Russia’s aggression against Ukraine threatens our vision of a Europe that is whole, free, and at peace,” Obama wrote in a commentary published on the Financial Times website on July 8. He said NATO must “reaffirm our determination -- our duty…to defend every NATO ally.”
The U.S.-led battalion comes on top of an additional armored U.S. brigade, which U.S. officials announced earlier this year would begin rotating into Eastern Europe on a regular basis. That brings the number of fully manned U.S. combat brigades with a presence in Europe to three. A brigade comprises about 4,200 to 4,500 troops.
Russia’s interference in Ukraine has increased concerns in Poland and the three Baltic states, which were under Moscow’s thumb until the collapse of communism and the disintegration of the Soviet Union a quarter-century ago. All are now NATO members.
In addition to military force, Western governments say that under President Vladimir Putin, Russia has used cyberattacks, propaganda, and other methods in an effort to destabilize European countries and undermine Western unity.
Russia has criticized NATO’s deployment plans.
Konstantin Kosachyov, chairman of the foreign policy committee in the upper parliament house, likened them to “building a dam in the desert,” and Putin’s spokesman said on July 8 that it was “absurd to speak of a threat from Russia.”
Stoltenberg said that "NATO does not seek confrontation” and will “continue to seek meaningful and constructive dialogue" with Russia. He and other NATO leaders say Russia’s actions in Ukraine have forced the alliance to bolster its defenses.
Obama said that “even as our nations remain open to a more constructive relationship with Russia, we should agree that sanctions on Russia must remain in place until Moscow fully implements its obligations” under the Minsk agreement.
The NATO-Russia Council, which was set up in the 1990s to address Russia’s misgivings about the alliance expanding eastward, is to meet next week for the second time this year. The council was suspended in 2014 following Russia’s seizure of Crimea.
With reporting by Reuters, dpa, AP, AFP, and Interfax