Global Policy Forum

NATO Chief Urges Bigger European Role in Afghan War

By Steven Erlanger

August 3, 2009

On his first day on the job, NATO's new secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, called Monday for stronger European efforts in Afghanistan so that the United States did not feel alone in the fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Citing Qaeda attacks on European soil, Mr. Rasmussen said the battle against Islamic extremism belonged to Europe as well. "I would urge Europeans to look closer into how to ensure a better balance in the alliance," he said in an interview here. "To that end we need increased European contributions."

Mr. Rasmussen, 56, a Danish former prime minister, takes office as European will to support NATO's biggest mission, the war in Afghanistan, is waning. NATO casualties there hit a record high last month, and Britain, France and Germany have shown a reluctance to commit more troops.
But echoing the plaintive pleas of his predecessor, the Dutch diplomat Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, Mr. Rasmussen called for more European troops and more Europeans to train the Afghan Army and the police to stand on their own. "It is essential to keep this as a multilateral project, not least for political reasons," he said, alluding gently to the American-British invasion of Iraq in the face of major allied discontent. "That is a lesson I learned from the past. Even if America can do it on its own, there are heavy arguments for doing it through a multilateral approach within a NATO context." NATO has about 64,000 troops in Afghanistan, about half of them American. But the number of Americans is expected to increase to 68,000 by year's end, which would mean roughly two American soldiers for every non-American one. Washington would like at least some of the extra troops Europe has sent to Afghanistan to provide security for the coming elections to remain there, and to have more flexibility in their use, but Mr. Rasmussen refused to comment on the progress of that conversation.

Mr. Rasmussen, who was Denmark's prime minister for the last eight years, is the highest-ranking official to become NATO's secretary general. As prime minister, he was involved deeply in European Union and NATO issues. Having presided successfully over a contentious European Union during the fierce debate over expansion in 2002, he is respected by his peers and was the consensus pick of major European countries for this job.
Still, it took the intervention of President Obama with Turkey to win consent for Mr. Rasmussen's appointment. When a newspaper printed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in 2005, setting off demonstrations and riots throughout much of the Muslim world, he defended freedom of the press in Denmark, saying he personally would not have printed the cartoons but rejecting a meeting with ambassadors from Muslim countries. He never apologized.

Turkey argued that Mr. Rasmussen was an unfortunate choice as NATO was fighting a war against Muslims in Afghanistan. Asked about continuing skepticism about his appointment among Muslims, he said Monday that he had invited Muslim ambassadors "to discuss with me how to develop a partnership with NATO" and that he would go to Turkey on one of his first official visits. "I consider it a part of the past," Mr. Rasmussen said of the cartoon controversy, "and I think we should now focus on the future."  He insisted that strains with Turkey had been smoothed over and would not represent any extra difficulty as he tried to make the miserable Turkish-Greek relationship work inside NATO. After Afghanistan, NATO's biggest challenge may be Russia, with whom relations are deeply strained. Mr. Rasmussen had little new to say on the subject, except that the relationship with Moscow was difficult and important for shared interests like fighting terrorism, nuclear proliferation and narcotics.

NATO would insist that Russia "respect its international obligations, including full respect for the borders of its neighbors," he said. NATO rejects any partition of Georgia, he said, and also would reject any special Russian "zone of privileged interest," as the prime minister, Vladimir V. Putin, has declared, referring to former Soviet republics like Georgia. Each nation, Mr. Rasmussen said, has the right to choose its alliances. But NATO is in no hurry to bring Ukraine or Georgia into the alliance in the face of fierce Russian opposition and meddling. And while Russia has not pulled its troops out of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which it promised to do, NATO is clearly not going to do much about it.

Mr. Rasmussen, who is fluent in English and French (he owns a summer house in France), said he welcomed France's reintegration into the military alliance. "The French decision has removed a lot of suspicion internally" within NATO, he said. "It opens big and interesting perspectives for trans-Atlantic relations and the NATO-E.U. relationship, in a much more relaxed and less ideological way than we had before. Don't underestimate what happened in Europe. "The U.S. and Canada will see quite a new attitude from the European side," especially on questions of NATO's assuming further roles outside its traditional European region, he said.

Mr. Rasmussen also said he would work to find a solution to the conflict over the name for the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, which Greece insists must not call itself simply Macedonia, which is also the name of a Greek region. Condoleezza Rice, when she was the American secretary of state, joked at a NATO conference that the new name should be the Republic of Aardvark, so it would come first at the table. Mr. Rasmussen would not be drawn out on that suggestion, although he smiled broadly.

His first priority, he said, will have to be Afghanistan. Despite anxiety about the mission, there will be no artificial deadlines for pulling out, he said, and NATO "will support the Afghan people for as long as it takes." But what is it to "prevail" in Afghanistan?  "My criterion of success is that we can hand over gradual responsibility for security to the Afghans themselves," he said. "The Afghans must be masters in their own house; that's the longer-term goal."


Afghan War Commanders Meet

In a sign of the priority now given to the Afghan mission, the American defense secretary, Robert M. Gates, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, flew without public announcement to Belgium on Sunday for private consultations with the top commanders for the war effort.

In the strategy session were Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of American forces in Afghanistan and Iraq; Adm. James G. Stavridis, NATO's supreme allied commander; Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander in Afghanistan; and his deputy, Lt. Gen. David M. Rodriguez.
The meeting at Chièvres Air Base "was an opportunity for the secretary to get an interim report on General McChrystal's assessment of the security situation in Afghanistan" and to discuss the situation with senior commanders and advisers, said Geoff Morrell, a Pentagon spokesman.


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