Accessibility links

U.S. Ambassador To NATO Talks About The Way Forward In South Asia

"The emphasis of the international community is broadening so that we are looking at both Afghanistan and Pakistan as a whole," says Kurt Volker.

"The emphasis of the international community is broadening so that we are looking at both Afghanistan and Pakistan as a whole," says Kurt Volker.

NATO will ultimately succeed in bringing peace to Afghanistan because success will depend on the power of ideas -- and peace, security, and prosperity are all ideas supported by the vast majority of people in South Asia. That’s the main message delivered by Kurt Volker, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, in an exclusive interview with RFE/RL correspondent Abubakar Siddique at RFE/RL’s Prague headquarters.

RFE/RL: During his recent visit to the North Atlantic Council, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said the international community can't afford the cost of failure in Afghanistan. What does it tell us about the way forward in Afghanistan?

Kurt Volker:
As the vice president said, one of the first steps that President [Barack] Obama took when he came into office was to order a full-scale strategy review of how things are going in Afghanistan, what is working, what is not working, what we need to do better. The results of that review, we hope, will be announced in the next week -- or two or three -- as we move toward a NATO summit and a U.S.-EU summit and a large meeting of foreign ministers in The Hague on March 31 that will bring together Afghanistan's neighbors, transit countries, troop contributors, NATO, international organizations -- all with an effort to see what we need to be doing to help Afghanistan succeed.

We don't have the results of the strategy review yet, but I can give you a few outlines of the factors that are shaping people's thinking. One of them is that we need to look at the border area of Afghanistan and Pakistan together. We can't look at just one side of it because what happens on one side affects the other and vice versa. And the extremists cross the border regularly in order to put pressure on either Afghanistan or Pakistan. So we have to look at that region as a whole. That means doing our job in Afghanistan and working with the Afghan government there but also helping support the Pakistani government in its efforts to deal with extremist violence inside Pakistan.

We have to look at Afghanistan as part of a wider region so that there are countries and its neighbors who have a stake in Afghanistan's stability and Afghanistan's success. We have to look at the nonmilitary aspects of helping Afghanistan build its society. Military aspects in providing public security are critical. But alone, they are not sufficient. And we are going to need to do a better job with supporting good governance, with fighting corruption, with fighting the drug trade, building the economy -- and connecting with local leaders, local officials, and tribal leaders, so that they have a stake in building the society and in building Afghanistan as a nation.

RFE/RL: On that border region, since 9/11, we have seen some international focus on political institution-building in Afghanistan. But there is less of an emphasis on domestic institution building, particularly on the integration of remote tribal regions into the Pakistani state. Is that part of the plan now? Will it happen now?

I think that is changing. And I think that the emphasis that people are placing on helping Pakistan build the right kind of structures to support its own institutions, to support security in Pakistan, to support these regions, I think that emphasis is growing. It's difficult. Obviously the extremists have strong bases inside Pakistan. They have been able to attack the Marriott Hotel [in Islamabad]. They've assassinated Benazir Bhutto. They are able to launch attacks from there on Mumbai. So there is an awful lot of support for the insurgency and for the extremists in Pakistan. And for the government and the military to be able to get a handle on that is very, very difficult. And they need a great deal of support. But I do think that the emphasis of the international community is broadening so that we are looking at both Afghanistan and Pakistan as a whole.

Former Taliban fighters attend a ceremony as they surrender on March 10 in Herat under a U.S.-backed Afghan government amnesty scheme.
RFE/RL: Civilian casualties represent the single biggest challenge confronting the Western military effort in Afghanistan. What concrete steps are you taking to address this central issue?

We do not want to see a single civilian casualty inside of Afghanistan. It is important to us that the Afghan people know that our efforts are there to help them. We want to help them build a society, to be able to live in security, and to be safe from the extremist attacks that occur. Some 80 percent of all the civilian casualties are caused by the insurgents. And they will use suicide bombs. They will conduct beheadings. They have dragged people of off buses to kill them. So there is a brutality and a focused effort to terrorize the civilian population conducted by the insurgents.

What ISAF and NATO forces do is try to protect the population and fight the insurgency. In the process of doing that, inevitably, civilian casualties do occur. We do everything we can to minimize that. And in particular, General [David] McKiernan, the ISAF commander, issued tactical directives in both August and December -- so, explicit guidance to the NATO forces -- to do everything possible to avoid civilian casualties, and when incidents do occur to investigate them promptly. He has also issued guidance to work together with Afghan military forces and planners at every stage in operations so that they are fully involved and so that we are not misreading cultural norms or miscalculating, but working as closely as we can with Afghans to protect the population.

RFE/RL: Given that most violence is concentrated in the Pashtun regions in Afghanistan and Pakistan, there is a very strong perception that Western militaries are not acclimatized to the local customs and are essentially turning the locals against the military by employing aggressive tactics such as door-to-door searches and indiscriminate arrests. What are you doing to address this wide gap of cultural understanding?

That's exactly the reason why we are building the Afghan forces and the Afghan planners and the Afghan leadership into every stage of the operations that we conduct in Afghanistan. Because we know that there will naturally be a cultural divide between the outside forces and the people of Afghanistan. And only the Afghans themselves can help us bridge that divide. So when it comes to things like house-to-house searches -- where there are people in Afghanistan who are providing weapons and financing and support to the insurgency -- we need to find those people.

But we ought to do it in a way that respects cultural norms -- and that is working together with the Afghan government. And that is exactly the kind of tactical directive that General McKiernan has given to the NATO forces in the way that they conduct their operations and the way they work together with the Afghan National Army.

RFE/RL: While under NATO's command, the situation in southern Afghanistan has gone from bad to worse, with some NATO members even reluctant to send their troops there and others seeking a way out. What are you doing to turn the situation around in that critical region?

There are two aspects to your question. One is what we are we doing to manage European and Canadian perceptions about what we are doing; and second is what are we doing on the ground. The reason why countries are finding it difficult to sustain their level of contribution in Afghanistan or to increase it is because the level of violence has been very high, and they don't have confidence that we have a strategy that is working and that is making sense. They also have some doubts about the cooperation with the Afghan government. So those are the sorts of things that we need to turn around. And that gets to what we do on the ground.

U.S. General David Petraeus meets with Afghan National Army soldiers in Kabul in November.
We've launched a strategy review in order to look at our strategy "soup to nuts," as the president has said. This means getting the balance of the military and the civilian effort right, looking at the crossborder issues, working with local leaders and officials, working with the Afghan government, closer coordination with the Afghan National Army, better efforts to train the Afghan National Army, more training for the Afghan police. And we are trying to do this in cooperation with our allies in Afghanistan as well, so we build a common, credible strategy that has the best chance of success. With that kind of successful strategy, we hope that we will be able to change the way that allied governments and publics look at our efforts in Afghanistan -- so that they are willing to invest.

President Obama announced some weeks ago that he was going to increase the U.S. troop contribution by about 17,000 troops. That is on top of what President [George W.] Bush decided, which was a further 11,000 troops. So we will see about 30,000 additional American troops to help improve the security environment. And we are also going to see a corresponding increase in the civilian presence -- and in the financing and reconstruction and development -- to try to get a better handle on the situation.

With that kind of strategy and that kind of American commitment to support the strategy, we hope that other countries join us in supporting that strategy as well with their own resources, so that we give the Afghan people the time and the opportunity to build their society.

RFE/RL: Are your European allies on board with the notion of talking to the Taliban, and is it part of a well thought out strategy, or an admission of defeat, as the Taliban have publicly claimed?

Using the phrase "negotiate with moderate Taliban" is really a misleading phrase. I think it takes you down a line of thinking that doesn't make sense. The majority of the population -- whether it is in Pashtun areas or other areas -- wants to live in a stable, more prosperous and safe society. And there is a minority of people who want to use violence in order to destroy that society.

What we need to do is not lump everybody together. We need to recognize that we should be working with and supporting the majority of the population that has the same goals for Afghanistan that anybody would -- and to focus our efforts in fighting the insurgency on that hard core of extremists and to separate the two. To separate the population from the intimidation or the radicalization that the extremists would impose on them.

RFE/RL: In a recent interview, Ambassador Lakhdar Brahimi, the architect of post-9/11 stabilization efforts in Afghanistan, said that NATO has no comprehensive strategy for Afghanistan, only a clutch of national armies with their own agendas and battle plans. How would you respond to such assertions?

We have seen a phenomenon where different NATO nations, by deploying in different areas, have taken a sense of ownership or responsibility only for the
U.S. General David D. McKiernan
ir own operations and not necessarily for the operations as a whole. The increased U.S. contribution, the role that General McKiernan is playing, the coordination with the Afghan government and the increased training of the Afghan National Police and the Afghan National Army will help overcome that -- to help pull together a more cohesive national effort. Someone said just at the meeting with Vice President Biden on [March 10] that we need to act at a district level but think at a national level. And I think that is the way we need to look at it.

RFE/RL: With the Afghan government openly saying that they do not control large swaths of territory in the south and east of the country, how challenging will it be for the U.S. and NATO to ensure stability during this summer's presidential elections?

Election security is critically important. And NATO and the United States are very focused on this. We want to do everything possible to make sure that the Afghan people have the opportunity to express their views and their choice for their government, and to create the safest environment possible. The increased U.S. troop contribution that has been announced will contribute to that. In addition, we are seeking additional contributions from allies to provide a safer environment for the elections

I'm fairly confident that this will go forward well. And the registration process that took place is the reason why we have some confidence, because that went forward relatively peacefully. Of course, the elections will be a target of the extremists. They will try to kill civilians in the course of the elections. And we will do everything we can to prevent that.

RFE/RL: President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emphasize soft power, while NATO is all about hard power. How does the trans-Atlantic alliance fit into that paradigm?

First off, NATO is not about hard power only. NATO is about the full range of capabilities that are necessary to deal with the security challenges that we have. And we want to both develop them within NATO and we want to work together with others like the Afghan government or the European Union or the United Nations. Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton has talked about smart power.

And by smart power, she is thinking about using all of the elements of power -- whether it is cultural or economic or political or diplomatic or military -- in order to achieve the effects, together, that we want to have. Using smart power means security environment in Afghanistan. But it [also] means governance. It means the economy. It means engaging the populations. It means a regional focus -- all the things that are elements in our considerations in the strategy review.

RFE/RL: From the Balkans in the 1990s to Afghanistan and Iraq in this decade, we've seen a continuing expansion of NATO's international security role. Along these lines, where do you see the alliance headed in the coming years -- is NATO willing and able to take on more?

I do think that NATO is willing and able. We have a little bit of work to do in building consensus and understanding in allied publics about the role of NATO. For that purpose, we hope to spend the next year or so after the summit developing a strategic concept that talks about NATO's modern role -- where NATO is in the 21st century after 60 years, as opposed to the role that NATO had in the 1990s.

The way I would describe it is that NATO remains an organization that has a trans-Atlantic character and that is fundamentally based on collective defense of its members. But the security environment that we live in today in a globalized world is fundamentally different than the security environment that we faced even 10 years ago. So the role that NATO plays in protecting the security of its own member states is very, very different in terms of the missions that it carries out compared to what it would have done 10 years ago or 20 or 30 years ago.

So NATO needs to play a proactive role in helping deal with crises around the world -- to helping societies deal with globalized security challenges such as terrorism, violent extremism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, failed states, and failed governance. And providing the tools to help societies deal with those challenges means that NATO is addressing the modern-day security challenges where they occur before they grow into even wider security challenges.

The attacks on the United States or on Madrid or London or Mumbai or Bali -- or even the arrests that took place today in the Netherlands -- all go back to this area of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and the ideology of extremism that is seeking to attack our societies. So as a means of providing security for the trans-Atlantic community, we need to be helping provide security in a wider area in and around Afghanistan.

RFE/RL: Is stabilizing Afghanistan a key future challenge for the trans-Atlantic alliance? Are you confident that you can succeed?

I am. I am. Ultimately, success depends on ideas. And the ideas that people should be able to choose, to build their own lives, to build stable families, to build a stable society and live in security, are ideas that the vast majority of people anywhere in the world will support. The idea that it is legitimate to target civilians, to blow up market places, to use suicide bombers -- that is held by a very small and radical minority. So ultimately, we will succeed.

RFE/RL: On one hand, Russia is allowing nonmilitary goods to Afghanistan and has resumed relations with NATO. On the other hand, the decision to evict U.S. troops from Manas Airport in Kyrgyzstan was announced by Kyrgyz president in Moscow while sitting next to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. What does this say about Russia's commitment to helping the international effort in Afghanistan?

Russia has spoken with NATO about wanting to cooperate in providing transit support and logistical supplies to Afghanistan. We welcome that Russian gesture to work with us on bringing supplies to Afghanistan. If that is, in fact, something Russia believes sincerely, we hope that Russia also communicates to the Kyrgyz their desire to see the Manas Airport remain open.