Afghan War Benefits From 'New Momentum'

The war effort in Afghanistan includes contributions from the more than two dozen NATO nations. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen says there's a "new momentum" to the war in Afghanistan — which he partly attributes to better training of Afghan troops. Rasmussen tells Renee Montagne NATO could begin handing over security responsibilities to some Afghan provinces as soon as this year.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

One of the efforts that the roughly two dozen NATO nations embrace without reservation is training. We spoke about that with NATO's secretary general yesterday during a visit to Washington. Anders Fogh Rasmussen says there is a new momentum to the war in Afghanistan, and he partly attributes that to better training of Afghan troops.

Mr. ANDERS FOGH RASMUSSEN (NATO Secretary General): We have established a training mission, and we will train and educate Afghan soldiers and Afghan police. And once the conditions permit, we will hand over responsibility to the Afghans, and I would expect that we could start in some provinces this year.

MONTAGNE: Although, those provinces are not the provinces that are beset by fighting with militants. Those are the more safe provinces.

Mr. RASMUSSEN: Yes. We will start in provinces where conditions are made to hand over the lead responsibility to the Afghans, and then gradually, as the security situation improves, more and more provinces can be handed over to the Afghans.

MONTAGNE: Now there's one thing, though, that people who've observed Afghans in action - Afghan soldiers are often quite brave, but in terms of a fighting force, there's a lot holding them back. They're illiterate, for the most part. They're underpaid. They don't have the best equipment, and in many cases, they do not have commanders who are up to the job.

Mr. RASMUSSEN: All the points you make are, of course, matters of concern. And actually, as you rightly pointed out, they are good fighters. But all of this, it boils down to the need for a strengthened NATO training mission, and this is a reason why I have urged all allies and partners to contribute trainers and training teams, so that we can improve the quality of the Afghan security forces and also increase the number of Afghan soldiers and Afghan police.

MONTAGNE: NATO has been in Afghanistan, of course, fighting, but you have made it clear that nations like Russia and China could and should be involved going forward in Afghanistan, if it is to become stable over the long term. Could you give us some examples of how - let's start with a traditional historic rival to the West, Russia - how they would be involved?

Mr. RASMUSSEN: The Russians know very well that if Afghanistan once again became a safe haven for terrorists, then they could easily spread from Afghanistan through central Asia to Russia. Russia also suffers from drug trafficking rooted in Afghanistan. And in concrete terms, I have suggested that Russia further its engagement in Afghanistan through providing helicopters for the Afghan army. I have also suggested that they train helicopter pilots, that they provide spare parts.

MONTAGNE: What kind of reaction have you gotten when you've suggested these efforts? Because that is - it would be Russia reaching pretty far into Afghanistan.

Mr. RASMUSSEN: Until now, we have not received a clear answer, but I know that the Russian authorities are currently considering the proposals I have presented to them.

MONTAGNE: If I may ask you a larger question: What about NATO itself? The war in Afghanistan has put a lot of pressure on this decades-old partnership. Never before were NATO governments facing citizens in these numbers who opposed a fight that NATO was engaged in. Given what happened just this weekend with the Dutch government and the Dutch government collapsing over a debate about Afghanistan, are there alarm bells, worries about how much harm Afghanistan might have done to this alliance?

Mr. RASMUSSEN: On the contrary, we have 28 allies. All of them are engaged in Afghanistan. So, actually, I think the Afghanistan mission has demonstrated the strengths and the solidarity within the alliance.

MONTAGNE: Anders Fogh Rasmussen is the Secretary General of NATO. He is in Washington, D.C. this week. Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. RASMUSSEN: You're welcome. Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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