In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that he expected concrete results from this week's London conference on Afghanistan.
Speaking to RFE/RL correspondent Abubakar Siddique, Rasmussen also said that the NATO mission in Afghanistan was not an "occupation force." "We will stay as long as it takes to finish our job, but our ultimate goal is to hand over responsibility to the Afghan people," he said.
RFE/RL: The Afghan government is expected to present a detailed plan for reconciliation with the Taliban in London. Previous plans have failed to win international backing due to a lack of resources and political backing. Is there any reason to believe the situation is any different today?
Anders Fogh Rasmussen: Yes, I think the situation will be very different, firstly, because there is now political support, and secondly, because I would expect the international community to provide funds for a reconciliation-and-reintegration effort. Having said that, I also need to stress that this reconciliation-and-reintegration process must be led by the Afghan government, and I take it for granted that the groups involved in that will accept and abide by the Afghan Constitution and democracy.
RFE/RL: Is anyone in the Western coalition really talking to authoritative figures among Taliban in Afghanistan in the run-up to the London conference? What have they indicated?
Rasmussen: No, as I said before, it is crucial that a reconciliation-and-reintegration process is led by the Afghan government. We will and we can, of course, assist if the Afghan government so wishes. But I think it is crucial that there is an Afghan ownership to this process.
RFE/RL: Why would the Taliban buy into reconciliation while they claim to be winning the war?
Rasmussen: Well, they will not win. We will prevail. They will not regain power in Afghanistan, first of all, because the Afghan people want freedom and democracy, they don't want the Taliban back, and secondly, because we have made very important decisions on the way ahead. We have increased the number of troops significantly. We will develop the capacity of the Afghan security forces. We will train Afghan soldiers and Afghan police and, gradually, Afghan soldiers and Afghan police will take over the responsibility for the security. And finally, the international community will provide more funds for development in Afghanistan and, in that respect, the Afghan government has also committed itself to a strengthened fight against corruption and the drug trade and, in general, committed itself to deliver better governance. So, for all these reasons, we will see new momentum and new progress in Afghanistan in 2010.
RFE/RL: Related to this topic, in an interview published today, General Stanley McChrystal said that he believed any Afghan could potentially play a role in the future government of their country, if they focused on the future. Do you share his opinion? If leading Taliban are going to be brought into the government, is the definition of victory shifting in Afghanistan? How would you define victory in that country?
Rasmussen: Well, I will speak about success, and success will be to hand over responsibility for the security to the Afghan people, to the Afghan security forces. The ultimate goal should be that the Afghan people will become masters in their own house and take responsibility for running and securing [their] own country.
We are there right now to protect the Afghan people. We are there to assist [them] in developing a stable society and a stable democracy. And I can assure you that we will stay committed as long as it takes to finish our job. NATO and ISAF is not an occupation force. We will stay as long as it takes to finish our job, but our ultimate goal is to hand over responsibility to the Afghan people.
RFE/RL: Mr. Secretary-General, shifting gears to another issue, media reports suggest that NATO is planning to create a top civilian post in Afghanistan. Why do you think it is needed and how will it affect the pace of reconstruction in the country given that NATO has had a senior civil representative in Kabul for years?
Rasmussen: And that is exactly the point. We have already a civilian representative in Kabul. However, we do believe that there is a strong need for better organization and better coordination of the civilian assistance to Afghanistan. We would also like to improve our capability to cooperate with the Afghan government and with other international actors in Kabul. There is also a strong need for better coordination among the so-called provincial reconstruction teams that work locally in Afghanistan. And to that end, we need an enhanced office of our civilian representative. So we will ensure an enhanced office, and I will also, in the near future, appoint a new civilian NATO representative in Kabul.
RFE/RL: On the issue of training Afghan forces, while Western allies are pushing Afghan security forces to rapidly expand in number in order to take over security responsibilities, many Afghans do not feel enough is being done to equip the country with modern weaponry. Assuming NATO troops will, sooner or later, be leaving Afghanistan, what kind of military infrastructure do you envision leaving behind? Will NATO continue to provide air support for the foreseeable future?
Rasmussen: All this will very much depend on the development in Afghanistan. As I said, our goal is to hand over the lead responsibility for security to the Afghan security forces, and therefore we will now train and educate Afghan soldiers and Afghan police. And we appreciate very much that the Afghan government has decided to increase the number of security forces to a level of around 300,000 by 2011. And of course we will ensure that the Afghan security forces are appropriately equipped. How this will take place in details will of course very much depend on the security challenges in the coming years."
RFE/RL: Continuing with the security theme, considering the presence of some questionable characters, including warlords and other powerbrokers, within the government, what challenges does arming Afghans and providing them with military training present?
Rasmussen: Well, we know from experience that the Afghan security forces actually do a great job. The fact is that the Afghan security forces are in the lead of two-thirds of the planned military operations in Afghanistan and this fact testifies to the capacity and determination of the Afghan security forces. Afghan soldiers are good fighters and I don't think there's any reason to believe that they will not support the Afghan government and the Afghan democracy, because at the end of the day, it is also a support of the Afghan people.
RFE/RL: Moving on to a larger strategic question, everybody involved in the Afghan struggle has used President Barack Obama's troop-withdrawal deadline to advance their interests. The Afghan Taliban are clearly holding out. Sensing a loss of foreign forces, the Afghan government is trying to hold onto its power and gains while the Pakistani military is using it as a reason for not going after Afghan Taliban sanctuaries. Given that all this is not conducive to a peaceful resolution in Afghanistan, should Obama rethink his talk about deadlines?
Rasmussen: But, actually, President Obama has not spoken about an exit from Afghanistan. What he has announced is an evaluation of our mission by 2011, which I think is reasonable. I mean, we have just decided to increase the number of troops significantly, and we do hope to see substantial progress in the coming 12 to 18 months. So in my opinion, it makes sense to take stock of the situation by mid-2011.
But President Obama has not spoken about a withdrawal from Afghanistan. As I said before, we will stay as long as it takes to secure the country. I can assure you that the international coalition will not leave Afghanistan until the country is able to stand on its own feet. [They] will not be left behind. So 2011 will be an important year to take stock of the situation, but it will be a condition-based approach. Hopefully the situation will allow us gradually transfer security responsibility to the Afghan security forces. But it will be based on the condition that Afghan soldiers and Afghan police are really capable to take care of their security."
RFE/RL: One brief question at the end, Mr. Secretary-General. What concrete commitments and specific goals are you looking to walk away from London with?
Rasmussen: Well, I would like and I also expect two concrete results from the London conference. Firstly, that we agree on the overall framework for a transition to lead Afghan responsibility for the security. We have to make sure that the transition for responsibility to the Afghan security forces takes place in a coordinated manner. And I think we will take a decision on it at the London conference.
And secondly I would expect that the international community as well as the Afghan government commit themselves to a reinforced civilian reconstruction and development in Afghanistan. So I think, the London conference will further contribute to the new momentum and progress we will see in Afghanistan in 2010.