Can Afghanistan be saved?
An interview with NATO Secretary-General Anders Rasmussen.
Mina Al-Oraibi: What are the main challenges that face the Arab world and NATO?
Anders Fogh Rasmussen: The countries within the Mediterranean Dialogue and the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative share our interests in stabilizing the situation in Afghanistan, because if Afghanistan is left behind, there is the risk of it [instability] spreading to the region, not to speak of the risk of destabilizing neighboring Pakistan, a nuclear power.
Oraibi: Many people in the Arab world feel this is not their fight, not their war. What steps can you take to further convince people and make them buy in to the importance of Afghanistan?
Rasmussen: If it became visible that countries with a Muslim background also contributed to our mission in Afghanistan, then it would become even more clear, which is a fact, that this is not about religion but a fight against extremism and terrorism. Already now, a couple of countries with Muslim backgrounds contribute to our mission in Afghanistan. It is very important for me to stress that this is definitely not about religion; it is about protecting the Afghan people against terrorism and extremism.
Oraibi: How exactly can Muslim countries support the effort there?
Rasmussen: There is a wide range of possibilities, from military contributions to financial contributions. In particular, I would point to the importance of supporting our training mission in Afghanistan, because this is what I would call the headline of our mission in Afghanistan – the transition to an Afghan lead across the board from security to development.
As far as security is concerned, it means we have to develop the capacity of the Afghan security forces to educate and train Afghan soldiers and Afghan police so that the Afghans can become capable to take lead responsibility for their own security. Then we could gradually hand over security, province by province, to the Afghans themselves. To that end, we need training personnel, but we also need money to finance an increased number of Afghan soldiers and police.
This is the long-term perspective: we will stay in Afghanistan as long as it takes to finish our job, but, of course, it is not forever. Our mission will end when the Afghans can take over the responsibility themselves; therefore we need to step up our endeavors within training of the Afghan security forces, so we will need trainers and we will need money.
Oraibi: After eight years, for many it is still not clear what the objective is in Afghanistan. In Washington, discussion on the way forward is ongoing for the Obama administration. Does that review in Washington impact the day-to-day developments in Afghanistan?
Rasmussen: Of course, the United States is the lead nation, the biggest contributor (of forces in Afghanistan) and therefore obviously the whole world awaits the American decision. It's more important to make the right decision than to hurry. So I recognize the need for thorough analysis in Washington. But, to my mind, there is no doubt about the way forward: It is to ensure a stronger Afghan ownership.
I have already spoken about the security area, but I also think we should ensure a stronger Afghan ownership in the area of civil development. To that end, we need a credible government in Kabul. We must hold that new government to account. We must make sure that they step up their fight against corruption, that they provide good governance and make efficient use of resources and deliver basic services to the Afghan people.
All in all, the international community needs a reliable partner in Kabul. I think there is a need for a new compact, a new contract, between the international community and the new government in Afghanistan; a new contract in which we make it clear that it is a prerequisite for continued international commitment to Afghanistan that the Afghan government provides good governance in the broad sense of the word.
Oraibi: There has been much talk of having another international conference for Afghanistan. Is this what you think is necessary in order to launch a new international compact?
Rasmussen: I think so. A new international conference could be used as a platform for establishing this compact and to provide the necessary resources for development of the Afghan society – for this broader approach in which we not just focus on military efforts but much more also on civilian reconstruction and development. We need to reinforce the interaction between military security and civilian development.
Oraibi: What troops levels are necessary in Afghanistan to make this strategy a success?
Rasmussen: It's a bit too early to make final decisions on troop numbers, but I know already now that we will need more resources for our training mission. We have decided to establish a training mission, and we need to fully finance and equip it. Therefore, we need training money, so in that respect I know that we will need more resources.
I am happy to note that the NATO ministers of defense agreed recently with [top US commander in Afghanistan Gen. Stanley A.] McChrystal's counterinsurgency approach. So based on that, we will take the necessary decisions on resources at a later stage.
Oraibi: Pakistan is a huge element in stabilizing Afghanistan, and in recent weeks we've seen an escalation of attacks there. How much can you do to support Pakistan without having an actual presence there?
Rasumussen: I agree we have to look upon the region as a whole because many of the problems and challenges are interlinked. Definitely we cannot solve the problems in Afghanistan without stronger engagement of Pakistan.
First of all, I would like to commend the Pakistani government and military for their fight against terrorists in the border region that is really of utmost importance.
Next, I appreciate very much that we have already established a relationship and cooperation between Pakistan, Afghanistan, and [the] ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) within the framework of a trilateral commission, and we have also established border control centers in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan. I think we will see further development of the cooperation in the coming years.
Having said that, I have to stress that, first and foremost, the responsibility for security in Pakistan lies with the Pakistani authorities themselves, of course, but we are ready to assist if there is a request from the Pakistani side.
Oraibi: As you are aware, there is some controversy linked to you in the Muslim world due to the cartoon crisis that was sparked off in Denmark while you were Danish prime minister. Has this incident affected your relations in dealing with Muslim countries?
Rasmussen: First of all, about the specific cartoon case, I consider it an element of the past. Now I look forward. I have the deepest respect for people's religious feelings; I'm also a strong believer in an open dialogue between religions and cultures with the aim to improve intercultural and interreligious understanding based on mutual respect.
So this is my point of departure. As new secretary-general of NATO, I have also made it one of my priorities to strengthen the partnerships and a number of Muslim countries within the framework of the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative and Mediterranean Dialogue.
My priorities are very clear; I have met with ambassadors from all these countries to discuss with them how we could carry our partnerships forward. I think I have an excellent platform for pursuing my goal of a strengthened partnership between NATO and Muslim countries.
Gen. Anders Fogh Rasmussen is the secretary-general of NATO and the former prime minister of Denmark. As part of the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative, Rasmussen is in Abu Dhabi this week to mobilize Arab support for the NATO effort in Afghanistan. Mina Al-Oraibi is the current affairs journalist for Asharq Alawsat Newspaper, an international, pan-Arab daily based in London.