WARSAW, Poland (AP) — NATO allies agreed Saturday to provide increased military support to countries in the Middle East and North Africa that are targets of Islamic extremism, including using NATO surveillance planes in the fight against the Islamic State group.
Alliance leaders also agreed to launch a new naval mission in the Mediterranean, and made commitments to maintain a stable military presence in Afghanistan and to fund Afghan security forces through 2020.
"We're moving forward with the most significant reinforcement of our collective defense any time since the Cold War," U.S. President Barack Obama said at a news conference at the end of a crucial NATO summit in Warsaw.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said NATO will start a training and capacity-building mission for Iraqi armed forces in Iraq, a country he called central in the fight against IS. NATO is also working to establish an intelligence center in Tunisia, a major recruiting ground for IS, and will shortly start providing support to Tunisian special operation forces.
"Today we have taken decisions to strengthen our partners and to project stability beyond our borders," Stoltenberg told reporters. He said millions of people in Africa and the Middle East have been rendered "homeless and helpless" by radical organizations like IS and that the extremist groups are also to blame for organizing terrorist attacks in Europe and America.
Obama, who was attending his last NATO summit, called it "a pivotal moment for our alliance."
"In nearly 70 years of NATO we have perhaps never faced such a range of challenges all at once — security, humanitarian, political," he said. But he concluded that with the multifaceted efforts being made, "NATO is as strong, as nimble and as ready as ever."
Stoltenberg said Obama and leaders of the other 27 NATO countries also agreed in principle for alliance surveillance aircraft to provide direct support to the U.S.-led coalition fighting IS in Syria and Iraq. NATO diplomats say they expect flights by alliance AWACS planes to begin this fall and Stoltenberg labelled the move "a clear signal of our resolve to help tackle terrorism."
He said the alliance will launch a new maritime operation in the Mediterranean called Operation Sea Guardian, whose responsibilities will include counterterrorism. NATO will also cooperate with the European Union's efforts to shut down human smuggling operations that have fueled Europe's greatest migrant crisis since World War II.
The alliance will also increase cooperation with Jordan, and is preparing to help the new government in Libya design policies and institutions to help it better defend itself against extremist organizations, Stoltenberg said.
"We will provide greater support to our partners, so they can secure their countries and push back against violent extremism," he said.
Obama had been urging his fellow NATO leaders in Warsaw to expand their support for the war in Afghanistan against the Taliban. Meanwhile, violence in the U.S. led him to cut his Europe trip short so he can return home Sunday.
The U.S. has pledged to provide $3.5 billion annually to fund Afghan forces, and the government in Kabul is expected to contribute as much as $500 million. Allies would provide the remaining $1 billion. The funding would maintain a total of 352,000 Afghan Army troops and police officers.
"We are very close and I am certain we will reach that (funding) level," Stoltenberg told reporters. A senior U.S. administration official said NATO has commitments for about 90 percent of the goal.
Stoltenberg said it's too soon to say exactly how many troops individual allies will agree to keep in Afghanistan under NATO's Resolute Support training and advisory mission. But he said he believed that, based on commitments made Saturday, force levels will remain largely stable. Specific numbers will be finalized this fall, he said.
U.S. administration officials said they believe the number of forces dedicated to the NATO mission will be a bit more than 12,000. The officials were not authorized to discuss the details publicly, so spoke on condition of anonymity.
U.S. Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, the NATO supreme commander, told reporters the U.S. has pledged about 6,700 of that total, about 200 fewer than it currently provides.
He said training and advising of the Afghan air force and special operations forces won't be affected. But he said there will be fewer U.S. troops training Afghan conventional forces, although the U.S. will still send teams into the regions to assist the army and police.
Earlier this week, Obama announced that overall he would keep 8,400 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, rather than cut their numbers to 5,500 as he once planned. In addition to taking part in the NATO advisory-and-assist mission, the U.S. has special operations forces in the country that conduct counterterrorism missions.
The planned force levels allow NATO allies to remain in regional hubs around Afghanistan, with Germany in the north, Italy in the west, Turkey in the capital of Kabul and the United States in the east and south.
Scaparrotti said the Afghan mission is key to global security.
"We know that there are al-Qaida and (Islamic State) components in Afghanistan," he said. "If we fail there we will certainly see that impact in our global counterterrorism campaign that we're executing. It will make it harder."
The Warsaw summit, NATO's first in two years, was considered by many to be the alliance's most important since the Cold War.
On Friday, NATO leaders approved the deployment of four multinational battalions to Poland and the Baltic states to deter Russia, as well as a Romanian-Bulgarian brigade for the Black Sea region. Germany will lead a multinational battalion in Lithuania, with similar battalions to be led by the United States in Poland, Britain in Estonia and Canada in Latvia.
Obama pledged an "unwavering commitment of the United States to the security and defense of Europe" and said the common defense of the trans-Atlantic alliance would never change.
"In good times and bad Europe can count on the United States," he said.
The NATO plans to build up its forces was strongly criticized Saturday by Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet president during the Cold War.
"NATO has begun preparations for escalating from the Cold War into a hot one," Gorbachev was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency. "All the rhetoric in Warsaw just yells of a desire almost to declare war on Russia. They only talk about defense, but actually are preparing for offensive operations."
The White House, meanwhile, announced Obama would cut his Europe trip short by one day in the wake of the attack in Dallas that killed five police officers and wounded seven others during protests over fatal police shootings of black men in Minnesota and Louisiana.
Obama will attend meetings in Warsaw on Saturday before heading to Spain for meetings with Spanish leaders and a visit with U.S. troops.
He returns to Washington on Sunday and will visit Dallas early next week at the request of Mayor Mike Rawlings.