President Nicolas Sarkozy brought relief to a troubled Nato summit by announcing he is sending a force of almost 1,000 French troops to join alliance forces in Afghanistan in the battle against the Taliban.
The announcement provided a welcome boost for President George Bush, who also won the full backing of Nato leaders for US plans to locate a missile defence system in eastern Europe, a scheme expected to be criticised by the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, when he addresses the summit today. It also sets the scene for a difficult summit between Mr Putin and Mr Bush in Sochi on Sunday.
The French forces will be sent to eastern Afghanistan, freeing US Marines to redeploy alongside hard-pressed Canadian troops in Kandahar, a move that could keep Canada in Afghanistan. The US is also planning to deploy some of its 15,000 troops in a new "surge force" to take on the Taliban in southern Afghanistan, where a summer offensive is expected against British and coalition forces.
The US force will be from the 3,200-strong 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which will move to the south of the country with the arrival of the French troops.
Senior British military chiefs said it would be a highly flexible force, able to roam the country, attacking Taliban forces wherever they posed a threat. "The numbers are not the key thing," said a British source. "It is the effect it will have. The consequences are that it will bind Canada in, and it will release the Americans to take on the Taliban."
M. Sarkozy's deployment of French forces came as a relief to Nato chiefs, who have been pressing for more troop commitments in support of the government of Hamid Karzai, the Afghan President, who was at the Nato summit in Bucharest.
The total force numbers were played down by the French because of opposition at home to the commitment of forces to Afghanistan, seen by Socialist critics as another Vietnam. However, the troop numbers include French special forces and a contingent of French civilians who are being sent out to help in rebuilding civil society. British commanders at the Nato summit said military action alone would not win over Afghanistan's tribes.
It was unclear whether French forces will be under national restrictions about their operations. Nato leaders failed to make any progress on attempts to remove the caveats for other national forces in Afghanistan, such as German forces who are restricted to the safer north in a non-combat role.
M. Sarkozy recommitted France to rejoining Nato's military command structure for the first time since 1966 when France was pulled out of Nato by President Charles de Gaulle. Addressing his first Nato summit, M. Sarkozy acknowledged that his decision will be highly controversial and unpopular in France.
But "this opens the door for France to a strong renewal of its relations with Nato", he said.
Symbolising the change of course, he announced with the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, that France and Germany would jointly host Nato's 60th anniversary summit next year in the eastern French city of Strasbourg and its German sister town of Kehl, just across the river Rhine.
The French President's overtures to the US were reciprocated by Mr Bush in characteristic fashion. Mr Bush compared M. Sarkozy to the rock 'n' roll legend Elvis Presley. Mr Bush told Nato leaders that when M. Sarkozy visited the United States last summer, he was seen as "the latest incarnation of Elvis".
Gordon Brown sat alongside Mr Bush for most of the morning session, and the two leaders were seen chatting amicably. Before meeting Mr Karzai, Mr Brown said: "This will become known as the burden-sharing summit because there are more countries represented in discussions than at any point in the past. People recognise that it is the front line against the Taliban. We cannot afford to allow al-Qa'ida to make progress. We must safeguard the new democracy."
Nato leaders covered up divisions over enlargement by agreeing a compromise communiqué pledging that the former Soviet republics Georgia and Ukraine will join in the future, but without a timetable.
Mr Brown later said that the foreign ministers have the authority to confer membership action plan (MAP) status on the two states at a conference in December.
Attempts to bring Macedonia into Nato ended in deadlock with the Greeks over its future name, and the Macedonian delegation walked out in protest.
Russian sources told a Serb delegation that the Kremlin regarded the refusal to reach a MAP decision on Georgia and Ukraine as a "small victory". But they said Mr Putin intended to list other "worries" in his speech today, including independence for Kosovo.
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