Nato chief: Afghanistan is only the beginning
Nato has to play a bigger role in the world by collaborating with countries outside the alliance, Nato chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen told NRC Handelsblad. "Security is unimaginable without partners."
But that doesn't stop the former Danish prime minister, who became Nato's chief diplomat last year, from having ambitious plans. Nato has a lot on its plate just dealing with the first ground war in its 50-year history in Afganistan, but Rasmussen is thinking about possibilities to extensively expand the organisation. In an interview during the annual Munich Security Conference last weekend, he told reporters from a couple of member states he wants the organisation to become a hub of military and political partnerships with a much wider reach than it has today.
In the years since the demise of its long time foe, the Soviet Union, the alliance has been struggling with the justification for its existence. There are many new threats to the 28 member states in Europe and North America: failed states, terrorism, cybercrime and piracy. But is it up to Nato to arm itself against those dangers and to swing into action in hot spots around the world, as it has in Afghanistan? Or would it be better for the organisation to focus on protecting its own territory and managing crises in the region?
'Underestimated the challenges'
An expert panel, led by former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright and
ex-Shell CEO Jeroen van der Veer, which is helping
draft a new Strategic Concept for Nato is to answer such questions. In
anticipation of their conclusions, Rasmussen spoke about his ideas for the
alliance, the course of the current war, his hope the Netherlands won't
withdraw its troops, Nato's financial problems and the ever difficult
relationship with Russia.
"In Afghanistan, 2009 was a very difficult year for us: unfortunately, we took too many casualties and went through a very lengthy and complicated electoral process," he said talking about the presidential election that kept Hamid Karzai in office in spite of reports of large scale voter fraud. "We may have underestimated the challenges in Afghanistan for quite some years,” Rasmussen said. “Gradually, we came to realise it would take more troops, and also reinforced interaction between our military efforts, our civilian development and reconstruction. But lessons were learnt. We have now renewed our strategy and approach. Based on that, I am quite optimistic we are seeing progress in 2010. The situation remains difficult but the tide is turning. “
The secretary general mentioned the additional 39,000 Nato troops being deployed in Afghanistan, but said he had high hopes for the transfer of security responsibilities to the Afgan authorities. "The new strategy for transition is an Afghan lead, with a strong commitment from the international community for development and reconstruction," he said. ”The Afghan government has made a commitment to improve governance and strengthen the fight against corruption and the drug trade.“
A forum for consultation
To make all this happen, the next step is for Nato to expand the training of Afghan militaries. "It is crucial to hand over responsibility to the Afghans. In the coming days, I will work the phones to make sure we will get further contributions to the training mission. We hope that nations will announce further contributions or reconfiguration of existing contributions, so we can fill the gap and get our training mission up and running."
The Netherlands is amongst the members Rasmussen hopes will send extra trainers. But he feels it is too early to consider such a deployment as an alternative to its current mission in Uruzgan. "I follow the developments in the Netherlands closely, I know that there are political deliberations. We need further contributions to our training mission, so a Dutch contribution would also be welcome. But to the best my knowledge no final decision has been made yet. As secretary general of Nato, it is my strong desire to see all allies and partners stay the course, because it is, at the end of the day, also about alliance solidarity. But now I would leave it to the Dutch goverment."
The comprehensive approach to the war in Afghanistan, Rasmussen said, should be the model for the future of the alliance. "In Afghanistan, the 28 allies collaborate with 16 non-Nato partners like Australia. We increasingly involve them in decision shaping and making. I would like to see Nato develop as the hub in a network of security partnerships: a Nato that is a forum for consultation on worldwide security issues. Defence of the member states remains our core task, but security today requires involvement of partners outside our own alliance.”
Nato as Russia's major foreign threat?
Meanwhile, the alliance is dealing with large financial problems. Last week, Rasmussen sounded the alarm about this at a meeting of defence ministers in Istanbul. "Our budget has been fixed during the past ten years. Not even inflation was taken into account, but we had a significant increase in our activities. So we need more resources, but we should also look closer into how we can save money. We simply can’t afford to maintain Cold War commands and capabilities any more. We need to spend our scarce euros and dollars on what we actually need today," he said. "Current financial constraints serve as a driving force for more efficient use of resources, and that takes structural reform of the alliance. We have a political obligation to spend money on our soldiers and security, and not on heavy bureaucracy and outdated command structures."
Rasmussen distanced himself from those who still see the threat of the former Soviet Union in contemporary Russia. "Russia is a very important partner, the Russians and we share an interest in our success in Afghanistan. The Russians know very well if Afghanistan once again become a safe haven for terrorists it could easily spread from Afghanistan through Central Asia to Russia." He would like to see further Russian engagement in Afghanistan. "I suggested that they provided helicopters, helicopter pilots and spare parts. The Afghans would welcome Russians contributions, which is also a new thing." He added that helicopter pilot training by the Russians should probably take place in Russia. "For historical reasons, it might be a bit controversial to have Russian boots on the ground in Afghanistan."
Asked about the difficult relationship between Nato and Russia, which centres on the possible expansion of Nato to the east, the situation in Georgia and the new version of the American missile shield, Rasmussen said: "Facts on the ground tell a different story. We have achieved quite a lot in the months I have been in office. For example we are identifying a number of areas in which we see common security threats and challenges: Afghanistan, terrorism, proliferation of WMDs [weapons of mass destruction], piracy."
At the meeting in Munich, Rasmussen spoke to the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, about the Russians’ new military doctrine that was released last week and calls Nato the major foreign threat to the country. "I told him this statement does not reflect realities. Nato is not an enemy of Russia, Nato has no intention to attack Russia, on the contrary, I want to develop a strategic partnership between Nato and Russia,’’ the secretary general said of the conversation. "Lavrov told me a more accurate translation would not have used the word threat, but less offensive language. So he tried to downplay it.’’