''Afghanistan and NATO: The Way Forward''

Speech by NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen at the Atlantic Council of the United States

  • 28 Sep. 2009 -
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  • Last updated: 29 Sep. 2009 08:39

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me start by thanking the Atlantic Council for inviting me to speak here today, and thank Fred Kempe, Senator Hagel and General Jones for those kind words of introduction. I know that the Atlantic Council, which already has a long-standing reputation as a pre-eminent think-tank, has new energy and new wind in its sails. That is the kind of atmosphere I like. Which is why I’m so pleased to make my first speech in the United States as the new NATO Secretary General here today.

As you heard during that very kind introduction, I was Prime Minister of Denmark for eight years before taking up this post. And I can tell you, a lot of people asked me at the time why I wanted to give up that very special job, to head up an organisation some consider out of date, and which is struggling with a very, very difficult operation in Afghanistan.

My answer then was as clear as it is now. Because NATO remains the gold standard when it comes to international security cooperation. Because I believe firmly in the benefits and the potential of the transatlantic partnership, now as much as ever. Because we must succeed in Afghanistan – and I intend to help make that happen. And finally because I want to help shape the new NATO, not least through the new Strategic Concept.

There are specific reasons why I accepted the new job. However there is a more overall reason, and that became even more clear to me during the past weekend.

I visited Springfield, Illinois, the hometown of Abraham Lincoln - with the impressive Lincoln library and museum, and the old State Capital where Lincoln served as State Legislator before his presidency.

In 1858 Lincoln gave a speech in which he praised the desire for liberty as the strongest defence against despotism – “Our defence is in the preservation of the spirit which prizes liberty as a heritage of all men, in all lands, everywhere. Destroy this spirit, and you have planted the seeds of despotism around your own doors.”

Of all dates, Abraham Lincoln gave this speech on “9/11”, 1858 – a reminder of the timeless truth and significance of these words.

I consider it a duty to work for the accomplishment of these values and principles in the world of today and tomorrow. Therefore, I was pleased to take on the responsibilities as leader of the world’s strongest military alliance – an alliance that is not just military, but built on shared political values.

Of course, taking the job was the easy part. Making it all happen is slightly more complicated. Meeting the security challenges we face today will take all 28 members of this Alliance, standing together and pulling together in the same direction.

It’s my job to help make sure we do. As NATO Secretary General, I have to straddle the Atlantic – with one foot in Europe, and one in North America. When Europe and North America come together, I’m more comfortable. When they drift apart, I’m the first to feel the pain. And I must say, up front, that I’m a little concerned about the doubts I hear these days in the United States about NATO.

Some look at the operation in Afghanistan, and wonder if the Europeans have the will to fight -- Kagan’s Mars and Venus. Some wonder if the Europeans have the capability to fight, even if they wanted to. Others simply think that the days of strong transatlantic bonds are a relic of the past, and that the future for the United States is Asia. Or India. Or maybe somewhere else.

I want to tackle these doubts head on. Because I must say I get the impression that many Americans are losing sight of what NATO is, and how much it does – in the interests of US security, and international security. And that is a trend we need to reverse.

Afghanistan is a case in point. I know that there are many here in Washington who are frustrated: by the restrictions some NATO nations put on their forces; by the time it takes for NATO to take decisions; by the reluctance of some countries to send more forces to the mission, even for training.

Let me be very clear. I understand those frustrations. I am already working hard to address those very real problems.

But I also think that people are missing the forest for the trees. Yes, running this mission as a NATO operation has its share of challenges. All things considered, that is to be expected. But those challenges are far, far outweighed by the benefits – including, very much, for the United States.

First and foremost, all 28 NATO countries are in the mission. Without exception. That is solidarity. And there are 13 other countries, all NATO partners, with troops in the field as well: 41 countries in total, NATO and non-NATO, but all under NATO command. This is no ad-hoc coalition of the willing – this is an Alliance that is proving its staying power every day.

Which brings the second benefit: boots on the ground. There are 35,000 non-US troops in the mission. That’s 40% of the total. And that number is going up. Over the last 18 months, about 9,000 extra troops have been provided to the mission from the non-US members. Sixteen countries have increased their contributions over that period. None has cut back. I’m not sure all of this gets as much visibility in the US as it deserves.

And the Allies are not running from the fight, despite the conventional wisdom. 14 countries have forces in the South and East, alongside US forces. And while body count is no measure of solidarity, it is, unfortunately, a symbol of commitment. Over 20 countries have had their soldiers killed, some in large numbers.

Every Wednesday in Brussels, I begin the meeting of NATO Ambassadors by offering my condolences to the countries that have lost soldiers in Afghanistan during the previous week. That has happened every week, without exception, since I took office. I will not accept from anyone the argument that the Europeans and the Canadians are not paying the price for success in Afghanistan. They are.

Let me mention one other benefit that sometimes goes unseen: development assistance. Billions have been pledged to help rebuild Afghanistan, and hundreds of millions have been spent by NATO Allies in Afghanistan. It’s all part of the same package – a team effort to achieve a common goal, at a very high price in blood and treasure. These are not costs the US can afford to pay alone. Because of NATO – through NATO – they are costs we bear together.

To my mind, Afghanistan doesn’t suggest NATO is past its prime. It proves just the opposite. The solidarity built up over 60 years is being strongly tested in Afghanistan. And it is holding up, over years, despite casualties and setbacks. That is a huge achievement, and a precious asset. I hope that that is recognised here in the US.

There is no doubt that the United States is an indispensable part of this mission; and all Allies respect the sacrifices that the United States has made. But talking down the European and Canadian contributions – as some here in the US do, on occasion – can become a self-fulfilling prophesy. If they don’t feel as if their efforts and sacrifices in NATO are recognised and valued, they will be less inclined to make those efforts and those sacrifices. That is not in anyone’s interest. And it doesn’t reflect the reality on the ground, first and foremost in Afghanistan.

We are there together. And that is the only way we should go forward. That is my first main point today: if we are to succeed in Afghanistan, it will only be if we do it together

I deliberately said “if we succeed”. I know that, despite everything we’ve already done, reaching our goal in Afghanistan is not guaranteed. Which brings me to my second point: we cannot simply continue doing exactly what we are doing now. Things are going to have to change.

The reasons are clear. Public support for this mission in troop-contributing countries is falling – because of rising casualties; because of concerns about the way the elections was held; but most of all, because of a sense among many people that, despite all the progress, we aren’t getting anywhere.

Part of the problem is simply communications. We in Governments haven’t managed to show to our populations how much has been accomplished. 7 million Afghan students are in school, a third of them girls. 85% of the population has access to basic health care, up from 6% a few years ago. Millions of people can vote, and did so in the past elections despite Taliban threats. Women can walk the streets, hold jobs, and sit in Parliament. And Al Qaida has no safe haven, no training camps, no launch pads in Afghanistan for terrorist attacks against us in the West. These are huge achievements, in just 8 years.

But the reality is that this mission is cannot continue forever. It should not continue forever. And our populations, Afghan and international, want to see light at the end of the tunnel. They want to see the beginning of transition to Afghan lead. That means, from a security point of view, Afghans taking lead responsibility, province by province, with international forces in a supporting role. It means Afghans running their own schools, their own hospitals, their own government.

I believe that if we can show transition actually happening, our publics will continue to support this mission through to success. But I am convinced that if we do not clearly and concretely begin to move towards transition to Afghan lead, it will be impossible to sustain public support for this mission over the long term. Sooner rather than later, transition must begin.

But let no one spin this as a run for the exits. It is not. NATO will stay for as long as it takes to succeed. And I want to repeat that: as long as it takes. But that cannot mean forever. Which means we have to start doing things a little differently.

General McChrystal’s top secret, close hold Strategic Assessment is being studied not only by anyone who reads the Washington Post, but also by the NATO nations and our Partners as well, on the military and political aspects. We will discuss it within the Alliance, and when the time is right we’ll discuss the resource aspects as well.

But one thing is already clear. If the Afghan security forces are to take the lead, they will need to be better trained, better equipped and likely more numerous. Which means we are all going to have to invest more in training and equipping them, because they are not ready now. It is a very simple calculation: we have to do more now, if we want to be able to do less later. That is why NATO has just established a training mission in Afghanistan – and why I’ll be pushing Allies very hard to resource it, and resource it fully. We cannot do transition on the cheap. That would be the ultimate false economy.

That applies to the civilian effort as well. I discussed that with UN Secretary General Ban just last week, as we looked ahead to the conference on Afghanistan that will be held at the end of the year. In a nutshell, I believe that that conference needs to set out a clear strategy, identify concrete benchmarks and earmark sufficient resources for transition to Afghan lead across the board in the coming years.

I have no illusions. None of this will be quick, and none of it will be easy. We will need to have patience. We will need more resources. And we will lose more young soldiers to the terrorist attacks of the Taliban. But I fully agree with President Obama when he says that this is not a war of choice, but of necessity. It is obvious that if we do not succeed, Afghanistan will again be a terrorist camp. Pakistan – nuclear armed Pakistan – will be severely destabilised. Extremism will spread fast into Central Asia, and then to Europe. That is simply the reality.

Which brings me to my third point: today, our territorial defence begins far away from our own borders. The 21st century NATO needs to look, and act, beyond Europe and North America, in order to keep Europe and North America safe.

Proliferation is another good example. The proliferation of missiles far away from our borders is a clear and growing menace to our territory and our populations. Non-proliferation measures are important, but they are not enough. Iran shows us why. And that means we must also look at deploying missile defences.

The recent announcement by President Obama on missile defence was, to my mind, important for two reasons. First, because it laid out a roadmap for deploying missile defences in a realistic timeframe, with proven technology, against a visible threat. But second, because this plan puts missile defence solidly in a NATO context; with participation open to all Allies, with protection for all Allies. That is the way in which we need to face 21st century challenges: not going it alone, but together, sharing the risks and the costs.

Which brings us full circle back to Afghanistan. To my mind, the way forward may be very difficult to navigate, but it is clear. First: the NATO Allies must continue to stand united, to recognise each others’ contributions, and to see this through together. Second: we must, as an international community, begin now to plan for, and invest in, a comprehensive transition to Afghan lead, military and civilian. And third, we must take on board a fundamental truth that this mission makes very clear: that today and into the future, territorial defence begins far beyond our borders. That understanding must be an important part of shaping NATO’s future.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I have come to NATO as a reformer; I do not intend to deviate from that mission. Secretary Albright is leading a team of 12 experts I have selected to start the process of drafting a new Strategic Concept for NATO.

It is, of course, not for me to say what I think their conclusions should be. They will arrive at their own results. But I can tell you what I think should be the principles that guide their work. They should be ambitious, but realistic with regards to resources. They should be firm on NATO’s core task – defence of our territory and populations – but flexible in their understanding of what that means in the 21st century. And they should see NATO not as an island, but as an organisation that needs to be more fully anchored and engaged in the international system.

They will submit their report to me next spring, and I will then lead a process of negotiation amongst Allies that will see a new Strategic Concept approved at a Summit in Portugal next fall. I can assure you that the result will be a NATO that is more modern, more outward looking, and more capable than ever of providing security for its members.

But I am convinced that some things in NATO will not change. We will stand united. For – as Abraham Lincoln put it: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” The United States will continue to be the ultimate guarantor of peace and security in Europe. America’s Allies in NATO will remain your closest friends, your most reliable partners, your brothers in arms. And NATO will remain the home in which now almost one billion people are safe and secure.


Thank you.