Brussels, Asharq Al-Awsat- In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al Awsat in his office at NATO’s headquarters, NATO Secretary General: Anders Fogh Rasmussen expressed a desire to strengthen NATO’s relations with Muslim countries, focusing on the need for more involvement from Muslim-majority countries in order to stabilize Afghanistan. At present, two partnerships with countries in the Middle East regulate NATOs relations in the region, one is the Mediterranean Dialogue with the countries on the Mediterranean Sea, and the second is the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative with the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council. The Secretary General is in Abu Dhabi this week for meetings with Gulf officials, as part of the development of the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative.
While Afghanistan takes up much of his time since he came to the post this summer, Anders Fogh Rasmussen is also preoccupied with developing the new Strategic Framework for the transatlantic alliance which is set to map out the future of NATO in the 21st century.
Below is the text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] We meet just before your trip to Abu Dhabi, what is the importance of the meetings you are having there and more generally what the partnerships with the Mediterranean Dialogue and Istanbul Cooperation Initiative countries add to NATO?
[Rasmussen] I look very much forward to visiting the region in my new capacity as Secretary General of NATO because I have made it one of my priorities to further develop our partnerships with the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative countries and also the countries within the Mediterranean Dialogue. I consider these partnerships a crucial part of creating regional stability. We share security interests in a number of areas and we are faced with the same security threats in a number of areas: terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, failed states, piracy, just to mention some of the areas. So it is of utmost importance to have not just a dialogue but also cooperation, for instance intelligence sharing so that we can improve the efficiency of our common fight against these common scourges of today. Actually I am going to sign an agreement with the United Arab Emirates during my visit to the region on sharing of information.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you provide more information on this agreement?
[Rasmussen] To share information you have to set the right terms of reference and the right conditions and that’s what the agreement is about. Within the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative, we have initiated a number of cooperation projects and visits; these visits and meetings are also a very important element of our partnership in order to promote mutual understanding and also possibly prevent misperceptions.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There are many misperceptions in the Arab world regarding NATO; many have negative impressions about it. How can you tackle that?
[Rasmussen] I think an open dialogue is a very important means to prevent misperceptions, I would also do my utmost to clearly present what is actually the core task and purpose of NATO and to that end we would very much like to engage our partner countries in the new Strategic Concept. Actually I have invited the countries within the ICI and MD initiatives to provide us with ideas and inputs as to how we could develop NATO’s Strategic Concept. The purpose of the Strategic Concept is to describe what is the purpose and core task of NATO, so it’s a very transparent and inclusive process in which we would also like to engage our partners. As part of our process we will organize a series of seminars and one of these seminars will focus on our partnerships and will take place in January. This just testifies to the importance we attach to further development of our partnerships.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What are the main challenges that face the Arab world and NATO?
[Rasmussen] Well I see a number of areas where we really share interests. I think the countries within MD and ICI share our interests in stabilizing situation in Afghanistan, because if Afghanistan is left behind, there is the risk of it spreading to the region, not to speak about the risk of destabilizing neighboring Pakistan, a nuclear power. So this is one of the areas in which I think we have a vital common interest.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Many people in the Arab world feel this is not their fight, not their war. However, what happens in Afghanistan has huge implications for the region, what steps can you take to further convince people and make them buy in to the importance of Afghanistan?
[Rasmussen] I think there is a very important aspect to this, to which I attach great importance. I think if it became clear to every body and visible that countries with a Muslim background also contributed to our mission in Afghanistan, then it would become even more clear, which is actually the fact, namely that this is not about religion, it is a fight against extremism and terrorism. Already now, a couple of countries with Muslim background 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.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think Muslim countries should send more troops to Afghanistan? How can they support the effort there?
[Rasmussen] Well 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, transition to Afghan lead, across the board from security to development. We need a stronger Afghan ownership and 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. That is a clear perspective, and therefore we need a strong training mission to train Afghan soldiers and Afghan police, to that end we need trainers, that are 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.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] After 8 years, for many it is still not clear what the objective is in Afghanistan. In Washington, the discussion is ongoing for the Obama administration on the way forward in Afghanistan. Does the ongoing 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. Having said that, I also think it is quite natural that the President and politicians in Washington need sufficient time to go through all this. It is not that easy, there are a lot of political aspects in this and as the biggest troop contributor; it is of course essential for the United States to make the right decision. It’s more important to take the right decision than to hurry. So I recognize the need for thorough analysis in Washington, but to my mind there is no doubt to 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 the new government to account, whatever might be the outcome of the elections, make sure that they step up their fight against corruption, that they in general provide good governance and make efficient use of resources, 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 pre-requisite for continued international commitment to Afghanistan that the Afghan government provides good governance, in the broad sense of the word.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] 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 contract, compact and to provide the necessary resources for development of the Afghan society and what we need is 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.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Since President Obama came to power and announced his new strategy for Afghanistan and the appointment of the Special Representative Ambassador Holbrooke, this has been a key component of the US strategy – so is there still a need to wait for the review to come out from the White House on steps forward?
[Rasmussen] Basically I don’t think we need a new strategy because as you pointed out, this is already the strategy, this broader, comprehensive approach. What we need is clear implementation of this strategy, with the headline transition to Afghan lead. I think that will be the core element of our strategy in the coming weeks, months, years, to make sure we develop the Afghan capacity to take responsibility – both as far as security is concerned and as far as development is concerned.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] This raises the question that everyone asks, are troops levels in Afghanistan where they need to be 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.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you have an estimate of the size of these resources, whether financial or personnel?
[Rasmussen] No, not yet, right now we are in the process of reviewing General McChrystal’s assessment and also his resource paper. So, it’s a still a bit too early to make final decision, we will make the necessary decisions as far as resources are concerned at a later stage. But I was happy to note that the NATO Ministers of Defense agreed with General McChrystal’s counter-insurgency approach, his initial assessment received broad support from the Ministers. So based on that, we will take the necessary decisions on resources at a later stage.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Pakistan is a huge element in stabilizing Afghanistan and in recent weeks we see an escalation of attacks there. How much can you do to support Pakistan without having an actual presence there, while it impacts Afghanistan so greatly?
[Rasmussen] I agree with you, we have to look upon the region as a whole because many of the problems and challenges are interlinked and 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 ISAF within the framework of a trilateral commission and we have also established border control centers in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan and 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.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There are questions regarding to the impact and effectiveness of drone attacks on the border region, in your assessment do they bring about results and are they a useful tool to have?
[Rasmussen] It is not a NATO business or NATO question – the NATO mandate concerns Afghanistan, so NATO-ISAF mandate provides basis for our operations in Afghanistan.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Moving on to Iraq, you have kept a low-key mission of training in Iraq, do you see a greater role for NATO in Iraq as we see a US troop reduction?
[Rasmussen] First and foremost, our role is to assist the Iraqi security forces in development of their capacity, it’s very much similar to what I said about Afghanistan, our goal is to make sure that the Iraqis can take care of security themselves. This is the reason why we established the training mission in Iraq and it has been quite successful. We will continue to assist the Iraqis as long as it is their wish and as long as it is necessary. We have also created a framework for further cooperation with Iraq in intelligence sharing, with the aim to combat terrorism, so I would not exclude that kind of cooperation in the future. But here and now, we focus on the training.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] As of course 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 would like to stress that 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 inter-religious 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 ICI and MD. 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 and I have had very fruitful meetings with the Ambassadors. So I think I have an excellent platform for pursuing my goal of a strengthened partnership between NATO and Muslim countries
[Asharq Al-Awsat] To wrap up, how are you finding your new role as Secretary General?
[Rasmussen] It’s my intention to modernize NATO, to make sure NATO adapts to the security challenges of the 21st century. NATO is a success story, during 60 years we have provided security and stability to Europe and North America. Today we are faced with new threats like terrorism, proliferation, weapons of mass destruction, piracy, risk from failed states, etc. So there is a strong need for a transatlantic organization like NATO in today’s word, but to make sure that we can really address these new threats, we need to transform, reform, modernize NATO and this will take place within the new strategic framework and the NATO summit in Strasbourg tasked me to lead that work towards a new strategic framework.