NATO’s secretary-general discusses Afghanistan, Libya

BRUSSELS — Since becoming head of the world’s most durable military alliance three years ago, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has had his hands full with conflicts and operations outside the coalition’s center of gravity in North America and Europe.

Under Rasmussen’s watch, North Atlantic Treaty Organization jets patrolled the skies over Libya and pounded forces loyal to dictator Moammar Kadafi, who was overthrown and later killed by rebel fighters last year. NATO warships are also stationed in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean to help combat Somali pirates.

But the alliance’s most consuming campaign remains the war in Afghanistan, which has been jolted in recent months by a wave of “insider attacks,” in which uniformed Afghans have turned on their Western trainers and colleagues. More than 50 troops from NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, have been killed in insider attacks this year.


Rasmussen, 59, who served as prime minister in his native Denmark from 2001 to 2009, is in his fourth year of a five-year term as secretary-general. He spoke to The Times in Brussels this week.

The top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, John Allen, said in a recently broadcast interview that he was “mad as hell” about the insider attacks. Do you feel the same?

I share his concerns. No doubt that the insider attacks threaten to undermine trust and confidence between foreign troops and Afghan security forces, but I can also assure you they will not succeed.

You’ve called the training of Afghan security forces the “only strategy that makes sense.” Aren’t the insider attacks now undermining that strategy?

No, the strategy remains the same. … It has never been our intention to become an occupation force. Right from the outset, it’s been our clear goal that Afghanistan could become a free, independent, sovereign nation taking care of its own security.

In order to withdraw international combat troops by the end of 2014 and still prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorists, we need a very strong and capable Afghan security force. This is the reason why we gradually build up to a level of 352,000 [members of the Afghan] security forces. … Nothing can derail that.

Haven’t the attacks succeeded in sowing mistrust? What signal does it give Afghan colleagues when ISAF forces wear body armor and carry loaded weapons around them?

Let me remind you that Afghan security forces have also been subject to insider attacks. It’s not just directed at foreign troops. Afghan soldiers and police are also victims, so we have a shared interest in and shared responsibility for preventing these insider attacks….

Sometimes we have seen Taliban fighters wear Afghan police uniforms or Afghan army uniforms. ... So the fact that our soldiers protect themselves is not a measure directed against their Afghan partners. It’s a measure against the enemy of Afghanistan.

ISAF estimates that the insurgency is directly or indirectly responsible for a quarter of the insider attacks. Isn’t that an alarming sign of infiltration by the Taliban?

Whether it’s a quarter or any other figure, it is a matter of concern. It is part of the strategy of the enemies of Afghanistan to undermine trust and confidence between the Afghan security forces and the foreign troops. It’s also part of a strategy to undermine public and political support for our mission in Afghanistan in the capitals of contributing countries….

We have strengthened vetting and recruiting procedures, we have strengthened counter-intelligence measures … and we will not hesitate to take new steps if needed.

The French are pulling out their forces a year early, and the U.S. and Britain are now privately mulling over changing their timetable of withdrawal. Is the process being accelerated?

You will see, from now until the end of 2014, drawdowns, troop withdrawals, redeployments, and that’s part of our plan. ... As the Afghan security forces step forward and take more and more responsibility, our troops can take a step backwards. We can redeploy; we can gradually change from mainly combat to mainly support.

Let me once and for all state, this is not a rush for the exit. It reflects the success of transition.

To have 350,000 members of the Afghan security forces is about one per every 100 people. Isn’t that a lot for a country the size of Afghanistan?

It’s our best estimate of what is needed under current circumstances. Whether that will be required also in a longer-term perspective remains to be seen...

The Taliban miscalculate the situation if they think they can just wait us out, because when we end our ISAF combat mission, they will be faced with a very strong and capable Afghan security force. ... They can no longer claim they are fighting foreign invaders; at that stage they will be fighting their own compatriots. That will be very difficult for them in the eyes of ordinary Afghan citizens.

Why is negotiating with the Taliban now acceptable, whereas several years ago it was not on the table?

If you are to create peace, then you will eventually also have to speak with your enemies.

But don’t you want to defeat your enemies before you speak?

The best way to facilitate a political process is to keep up strong military pressure so that the Taliban and other enemies of Afghanistan clearly realize that they have no chance whatsoever to prevail on the battlefield.

I think it makes sense to try to pursue a political solution if certain conditions are fulfilled. Firstly, the process must be led by the Afghans themselves. Secondly, groups and individuals involved in that reconciliation process must abide by the Afghan constitution and respect human rights, including women’s rights. And finally, they must denounce violence and cut ties with terrorist groups. If these conditions are fulfilled, I think we should give it a try.

The attack on Camp Bastion was quite sophisticated and caused major damage. Isn’t it worrisome that at this stage in the game they can mount so successful an attack?

It is a matter of concern. ... But during the whole campaign, you have seen the enemies of Afghanistan gradually develop new methods of warfare, and we adapt to that. I think that’s quite normal.

Wouldn’t you expect your enemy to be weakened and no longer able to mount such attacks if you’re being successful?

The enemy has been weakened. ... We have seen a decline in the number of enemy-initiated attacks. Furthermore, 80% of the enemy-initiated attacks take place in areas where only 20% of the Afghan population lives. In other words, a huge majority of Afghans live in areas where the situation is relatively calm and stable.

Regarding Syria, does NATO have anything more to offer the Syrian people than just encouraging words?

We share the frustration. It is absolutely outrageous what we’re witnessing in Syria. And we urge the Syrian leadership to stop violence and crackdowns on the civilian population and initiate a process towards democracy with an aim to accommodate the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people.

But we do believe that the right way forward is a political solution. There’s no United Nations mandate for a military operation, there’s no international call on NATO to intervene and we have no intention to intervene militarily, because we do believe that when it comes to Syria, the right way forward is a political solution, based on the main elements in the so-called Annan plan.

Syria is a very complex society, ethnically, religiously, politically, and any foreign military intervention might have unpredictable repercussions in the region.

Do you have any regrets over the Libya operation?

No, on the contrary, I think we conducted a very effective operation, implementing fully the United Nations mandate. We prevented a massacre [of] the Libyan people….

There are still security challenges in Libya, and in particular the challenge to put individual militia groups under control and to integrate them into a unified security structure. … But despite these challenges, we have seen an encouraging development in Libya.

Are you concerned over European commitment of resources and political will to NATO in a time of economic austerity, and is the U.S. right to feel angry over insufficient commitment by its European partners in NATO?

We have seen a growing gap between the United States on the one hand and European allies on the other hand, not least because of a very strong increase in American defense spending since 9/11. ... I urge European allies to do what they can, despite economic austerity, to invest in necessary military capabilities….

We should also nuance the picture a bit. ... You have seen Europe transform from being purely a security consumer during the Cold War to now being a security provider. During the Cold War, Europeans didn’t deploy troops in NATO-led international operations at all. ... Today, Europeans have many, many troops deployed in NATO-led international operations.

In Afghanistan, one-third of the international troops are non-U.S. In Kosovo, for each one American soldier, you have five Europeans. We are now building a NATO missile defense system; the bulk of the input is American, but 10 of the bigger European allies contribute as well. So you really see a strong European engagement ... and I think the United States should acknowledge that and appreciate that.