NATO: Afghan Forces Can Take Control Next Year

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen was in Washington Tuesday to meet with President Obama at the White House. Rasmussen tells Steve Inskeep that U.S.-led NATO troops in Afghanistan should be able to start handing off responsibility for security to government troops beginning next year.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

The secretary general of NATO faces a challenge: coordinating an alliance of 28 countries, many of which are engaged in the war in Afghanistan. The secretary general visited President Obama yesterday. And on his way to the White House, Anders Fogh Rasmussen stopped by our studios.

Here is a way that the strategic debate is understood by some outsiders. Tell me if this is correct. It's perceived that many of the NATO allies, when it comes to Afghanistan, want to get out a little faster and contribute less, whereas General David Petraeus, the new American commander, would like the NATO allies to take their time and contribute more. Is that a fair way to think of it?

Secretary General ANDERS FOGH RASMUSSEN (NATO): No, I don't think it's a fair description. Actually, we have seen an increase in the number of troops during the last six, seven months. And we have seen an increase in the number of participants in the international alliance in Afghanistan.

INSKEEP: You mean the number of countries who are sending some troops?

Sec. Gen. RASMUSSEN: Yeah. But obviously everybody would like to see conditions fulfilled so that our troops eventually can go home.

INSKEEP: Although this is one of the reasons that that perception arises. You were perceived as wanting this year, 2010, to have some portions of Afghanistan turned over to Afghan security forces, some province in the north and the northwest. It appears that General Petraeus is indicating while that might be nice, it's simply not possible.

Sec. Gen. RASMUSSEN: Yeah, but I do believe that we can make an announcement at the NATO summit in November that a transition to lead Afghan responsibility is about to start. When exactly, in which month, I don't know. But I would expect a gradual transition process to start in 2011. And we have endorsed President Karzai's ambition that Afghan security forces should take lead responsibility all over Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

INSKEEP: You told us when you spoke to this program in February, earlier this year, that one of your goals was to send more NATO trainers to help Afghan forces be prepared to take over. Do you think that NATO has done enough?

Sec. Gen. RASMUSSEN: Yes. We have really seen progress. We have increased the number of trainers. I also have to say that we will still need more. But we have seen progress.

And actually, we are ahead of schedule when it comes to the buildup of Afghan security forces. We have set the goal to reach a level of 300,000 Afghan soldiers and police by October next year. And we're already now ahead of schedule.

So our training mission has so far been a great success.

INSKEEP: Although not too many days ago on this program we heard from Lieutenant General William Caldwell, who's leading the training effort. And the quote from General Caldwell was: We're still not getting NATO to generate and deploy forces in the numbers that we need. Consequently the United States has been forced to send more trainers than they ever anticipated doing.

Sec. Gen. RASMUSSEN: Yeah. And this is also a reason why we are now putting a lot of pressure on all allies and partners to provide resources for our training mission, because trainers are the tickets to transition.

INSKEEP: So it's correct that NATO has not sent enough trainers yet?

Sec. Gen. RASMUSSEN: We have still some shortfalls. But as I told you, despite some shortfalls, we are ahead of schedule when it comes to the buildup of Afghan security forces. But there's no reason to hide that we need more trainers.

INSKEEP: Have you found occasions in which you think the United States and its allies may be working at cross-purposes in Afghanistan simply because it's so complicated? I'll give you an example of what I mean.

We've had reporting in recent weeks of Americans working with and putting on the payroll Afghans who are friendly to the United States, who can provide information, who can provide force, who can be helpful, but are also believed to be corrupt. Is that sort of thing counterproductive?

Sec. Gen. RASMUSSEN: Yes, indeed. I don't know about these cases in detail. But once we see examples of corruption, it is, of course, undermining the general support for our presence in Afghanistan and we have to fight such things determinedly.

INSKEEP: Can you reassure people that you think that a positive outcome can be brought about in a country where the situation is so complicated, so complex?

Sec. Gen. RASMUSSEN: We will prevail. Militarily we have clearly the upper hand. But I think right from the outset we have underestimated the real challenge. And in particular we didn't realize until a very late stage in this operation that it takes more than just military action. We have to reinforce the interaction between our military operations and a civilian development. A lot has been done, but it is nearly endless what could be done and what should be done.

INSKEEP: What's an example of something that must be done, that's in that endless list. An example of something also that maybe would be very nice to do, but that NATO should not be involved in because there just isn't time, there are not resources?

Sec. Gen. RASMUSSEN: One area in which I would like to see much more progress is the fight against corruption. Another area where we could and should do more is the fight against drugs. A focal point should be to provide farmers with alternative crops that are more profitable than opium.

INSKEEP: Because you have farmers for whom that's their entire living at this time.

Sec. Gen. RASMUSSEN: Yes. And it's a source of financing of terrorism in Afghanistan. But I think, in general, we should get our benchmarks right, for instance, when it comes to our assessment of democracy in Afghanistan. Afghanistan has got a democratic constitution, but we also have to realize that in a foreseeable future, the standards of Afghan democracy cannot and will not live up 100 percent to what we would expect in one of the Western countries.

INSKEEP: Secretary general, thanks very much.

Sec. Gen. RASMUSSEN: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: Anders Fogh Rasmussen is Secretary General of NATO.

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