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US vice president to discuss Afghanistan with NATO allies

Washington — US Vice President Joe Biden heads to Brussels on Monday for consultations with NATO allies as a moment of decision looms on a new US strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Biden, who holds a day of talks in Brussels Tuesday, will be on his second trip to Europe in a month, and officials said his high-profile journey was a sign of how seriously the war policy review was being taken.

President Barack Obama’s deputy will be tracing the steps of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who met NATO foreign ministers in Brussels last week.

"It’s just an indication of the seriousness of the situation in Afghanistan, but I think it’s also a recognition of the seriousness with which we take this," said a senior Obama administration official on condition of anonymity. "This is not just lip service, the idea of consultation, we mean it, and in return we want concrete ideas and concrete assistance."

Biden will hold consultations with the North Atlantic Council, the political and decision-making body of the alliance’s 26 member states, NATO secretary general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and Belgian government officials.

Obama initiated a new policy review on the war in Afghanistan and the struggle against extremism and instability in neighbouring Pakistan shortly after taking office in January.

Former CIA official Bruce Riedel is due to deliver the results of his study to the president and national security advisor James Jones before Obama heads to the NATO summit along the French-German border on April 3 and 4.

White House sources said the president would have the review in hand when he heads off to Europe, on a trip that also includes the G20 economic summit and a European Union-US summit in Prague.

Obama made an early mark in Afghan policy by ordering the deployment of 17,000 extra troops to the war zone, saying they were needed to stabilize a deteriorating security situation, in his first big move as commander-in-chief.

The deployment orders were in response to a months-old request by the US commander in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, who had asked for 30,000 more troops, and did not prejudge the result of the policy review.

Obama has vowed to end US combat in Iraq by August 2010, partly to relieve pressure on US armed forces and to allow him to send extra troops into Afghanistan, if necessary.

But the president acknowledged, in an interview with The New York Times published Sunday, that the United States was not winning the war in Afghanistan and hinted at possible talks with moderate elements of the Taliban.

Highlighting the success of the US strategy of bringing some Sunni Iraqi insurgents to the negotiating table and away from Al-Qaeda, Obama told the newspaper that "there may be some comparable opportunities in Afghanistan and the Pakistani region."

Afghan President Hamid Karzai reacted by saying that his government had long supported dialogue with those members of the Taliban who are not connected with "terrorists."

There had been expectations that Obama would try to capitalize on his popularity in Europe to demand US NATO partners come up with more troops for the war in Afghanistan, or to get some allies to remove restrictions on where their soldiers can fight.

But some major NATO partners have made clear that they are not in a position to send more soldiers into Afghanistan, so top US officials have recently been stressing the need to boost political and development components of the Afghan mission.

"The United States recognizes that not all of our allies can contribute troops but we appreciate other forms of assistance equally," the senior official said.

The official said that Biden would deliver a frank message to US allies that the administration wanted their input as it frames the new Afghanistan and Pakistan policy.

"If you don’t like US policies, and obviously that’s been an issue in the past, we will want your concrete ideas about what we should be doing in Afghanistan, and not just criticism," the official said.

Laurent Lozano/AFP/Expatica