Lisbon Summit: The players

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BRUSSELS, Belgium — NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen had hoped for a heady, introspective gathering in Lisbon, Portugal today and Saturday — a time for the world’s premier military alliance to consider its future.

Despite his efforts, the Lisbon gathering will be focused on the present. The new “Strategic Concept,” which guides alliance decision-making, spending and staffing and is renewed every 10 years, will take a back seat to Afghanistan.

Perhaps that’s not surprising as governments on both sides of the Atlantic struggle to prove that their nine-year war in Afghanistan is getting somewhere.

With that in mind, here is a guide to the players who will make their presence felt in Lisbon:

Anders Fogh Rasmussen

The Dane has spent much of his first year as secretary general crafting the new Strategic Concept, with input from other experts. The document will undoubtedly have an impact on how NATO pursues its Afghanistan engagement — and more importantly, whether there will ever be another Afghanistan.

“I'm confident that this will be one of the most important summits in NATO's history,” Rasmussen told the press ahead of the meeting. “The summit will put in place an alliance that is more effective, more engaged and more efficient.”

The Strategic Concept will lay out where what Rasmussen calls “fat” will be cut — 5,000 personnel positions, for example — and “muscle” added, which Rasmussen would like to see in areas such missile defense, cyber defense and tactical airlift capabilities.

Hamid Karzai

The Afghan president flabbergasted NATO allies just days before the summit with demands, made in an interview with the Washington Post, that NATO cut back its military operations in the country and, especially, end night-time special-ops raids against the Taliban. NATO’s commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), U.S. Gen. David Petraeus, met Wednesday with Karzai and reportedly received the president’s reluctant support for continued military operations. Both Karzai and Petraeus will be in Lisbon, with the general expected to report steady progress against insurgents.

Nicolas Sarkozy

The United States now wants to turn over Afghanistan to the Afghans by 2014, but the French might put a wrench in that plan. President Sarkozy has just reorganized his cabinet, and new defense minister Alain Juppe has called Afghanistan a “trap for all the parties involved there.” France is believed to be planning to bring home its soldiers before 2012 presidential elections there. It’s unclear what that might mean for an agreement in Lisbon on ISAF’s mandate.

Dmitry Medvedev

Russian President Medvedev, who kept Rasmussen waiting for weeks while he considered whether or not to accept an invitation to Lisbon, will show up on Saturday for a special NATO-Russia summit. It will be the first such session where both Medvedev and U.S. President Barack Obama are present.

Medvedev has indicated a softening of the Russian position on NATO plans to move ahead with an anti-ballistic missile program and NATO leaders are expected to offer him more defense cooperation, even the possibility of linking up the Russian missile-defense system with NATO’s.

U.S. Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder said this will be a chance for NATO’s relationship with Russia to catch up with ties that have improved between Moscow and many of the members bilaterally. “We see this as an opportunity to move to a new stage in the relationship,” he said, “moving from focusing on our differences and talking about them to moving particularly to practical cooperation on a whole host of issues.”

Mikheil Saakashvili

Countries hoping to join NATO will be making noise on the fringes of the summit, including Georgia, which has almost 600 troops serving in Afghanistan’s Helmand province and whose Western-oriented president, Saakashvili, will be in attendance.

Two years ago at NATO’s summit in Bucharest, then-U.S. President George W. Bush staked heavy political capital on getting “membership action plans” extended to the former Soviet states of Georgia and Ukraine to underscore — to Russia — that these countries were fully independent and welcome in the West. At this year’s summit, there will be only minimal mention, if any, made of these two aspirants.

David Kakabadze, director of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Georgian service, may be disappointed but he isn’t surprised at the military alliance’s priorities. He said there’s always a quid pro quo in dealing with Russia and that “Georgia is too little a fish in this big game.”

“If [Moscow] really agrees to assist NATO in Afghanistan or a missile-defense system,” Kakabadze said, “it will certainly ask something in return” — such as putting the go-slow on Georgia’s path to NATO membership. And Obama, unlike Bush, has given no indication he plans to elevate the issue.