RIGA, LATVIA -- NATO leaders concluded a two-day summit yesterday by renewing their commitment to help build a stable democracy in Afghanistan and announcing steps toward welcoming up to eight more former Communist states into the alliance.
In a surprise move, the leaders invited Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina to join the Partnership for Peace program, a step toward membership that also signals intent to build warmer relations with participants. NATO had previously demanded that Serbia and Bosnia first show greater cooperation in tracking high-profile suspects accused of war crimes in the Balkan wars of the 1990s.
A final declaration from the gathering held out the prospect that invitations to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization could be issued to Albania, Croatia and Macedonia at the next alliance summit, in 2008, if those nations can show they meet required standards at that time.
The declaration also stressed that the door to NATO membership remained open to Georgia and Ukraine. Both nations were formerly part of the Soviet Union, as were NATO members Estonia and Lithuania and summit host Latvia.
Moving to boost the alliance's fighting capacity in the face of a resurgence of the Taliban in some parts of Afghanistan, many countries in the 26-member organization agreed to reduce or eliminate restrictions on how their troops could be used there. Some members pledged to increase the number of soldiers, officials said.
Commitments made at the summit mean that of 32,000 NATO soldiers in Afghanistan, about 26,000 can now be used more flexibly, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said at a news conference.
Alliance officials did not immediately announce which countries had pledged troop increases, or what size those increases would be. Some reports said the additional troops would come from Poland, Bulgaria, Spain and Macedonia. All four nations, including nonmember Macedonia, have troops in Afghanistan.
"Contributing to peace and stability in Afghanistan is NATO's key priority," said the summit declaration, which described the shared goal of the alliance and the Afghan people as "a stable, democratic and prosperous society, free from terrorism, narcotics and fear, providing for its own security and at peace with its neighbors."
"There can be no security in Afghanistan without development, and no development without security," the declaration said.
De Hoop Scheffer described the decision to invite Serbia and Bosnia into the Partnership for Peace program as a "political" decision that was made without any intent to undermine continued pressure on those countries concerning war crimes suspects. NATO is pushing the two Balkan nations to assist in arresting former Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic and military commander Ratko Mladic, who were indicted by the U.N. tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague, Netherlands.
While de Hoop Scheffer did not elaborate on the reasons for the move, it was seen as a gesture of support for pro-Western democratic forces in parliamentary elections next month in Serbia. It might also have been intended to help compensate Serbia if the United Nations approves independence for the province of Kosovo next year, as seems likely.
David Holley and Peter Wallsten write for the Los Angeles Times.