MUNICH, Germany – A key security conference focused on NATO's commitment to Afghanistan opens Friday amid U.S. pressure on Germany and other key allies to deploy more troops. Concerns over Iran's nuclear defiance are also on the agenda.
Vice President Joe Biden will be on hand to meet the German and French leaders and to muster more support for NATO and U.S. efforts in Afghanistan even as the possibility of losing Manas Air Force base in Kyrgyzstan — a key supply point — looms in the background.
Moscow's delegation does not include Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, but Russia will be represented by Deputy Premier Sergei Ivanov. Russia has called on ex-Soviet republics to develop a force similar to NATO and opposes a U.S.-proposed missile shield in Eastern Europe.
Biden, a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and deeply versed in U.S. policy abroad, is expected to push allies at the conference for a greater share of the diplomatic, military and economic burdens confronting the new administration of President Barack Obama in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
But before the conference opening Friday, German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung stressed that his country's military was already too far stretched to commit more troops beyond the 4,500 now in the relative calm north. Instead, he said the future focus should be on future civil reconstruction, in conjunction with military security.
"With military force alone, we will not be successful in Afghanistan," he told reporters.
Biden is also expected to sound out France on expanding its commitment.
The French parliament voted in September to keep 3,300 French troops in the Afghan theater, but has no current plans to increase the French contingent.
On Iran, Biden is likely to hear praise of the new U.S. administration's readiness to engage in direct dialogue with Tehran in attempts to curb its nuclear activities and ease fears it seeks to develop the atomic bomb.
The new U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice, has said Obama's administration will engage in "direct diplomacy" with Iran. In his inaugural address, Obama addressed leaders of hostile nations by saying that "we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."
The six nations — the five U.N. Security Council members plus Germany — have offered Iran a package of incentives if it suspends uranium enrichment and enters into talks on its nuclear program. The Security Council has imposed sanctions to pressure Iran to comply.
Iran insists it is only seeking nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. But concerns were heightened after it launched a satellite Monday, because the same technology could be used to deliver a nuclear warhead.
Ali Larijani, speaker of Iran's parliament, and Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, were expected to touch on Tehran's ambitions in a panel discussion later Friday.
Hopes were high that Biden would make inroads into lessening friction with Moscow over the proposed missile defense system and NATO expansion closer to Russia's borders.
"I see signals that the U.S. as well as Russia are interested in a new beginning," Wolfgang Ischinger, the conference chairman and a former German ambassador to London and Washington, was quoted as saying in Bonn's General-Anzeiger newspaper this week.
The U.S. delegation includes retired Gen. James Jones, Obama's national security adviser, Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Richard Holbrooke, Obama's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.