''Afghanistan and the Future of Peace Operations''

Speech by NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen at the University of Chicago

  • 08 Apr. 2010 -
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  • Last updated: 15 Apr. 2010 10:59

Mr. Dean, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure for me to be here at the University of Chicago, and I’d like to thank the University and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, for hosting me. 

I’m happy to be here for a couple of reasons.  First, because Chicago is the hub of the Midwest– far from Washington.  Not that I have anything against your capital – on the contrary.  But the fact is that politicians from other countries, like me, usually only have time, when we come to the United States, to go to Washington, meet our counterparts, and fly out.  We don’t get out of the Beltway.

I think it’s important to get around the country and meet people from diverse backgrounds. The American actor, Michael Douglas once said: “I’m impressed with the people from Chicago. Hollywood is hype, New York is talk, Chicago is work”.

Chicago is a dynamic city which has preserved the traditional and solid values from the Midwest. So I’m glad to be able to come here, and to have a discussion with you.

I’m also pleased to be here because it is a University.  A place to think, to reflect, and to learn lessons, with an eye to the future.  That’s exactly what I want to do in my remarks today, and I welcome the opportunity. 

You won’t be surprised to hear that much of my day is spent on the management of the organization, NATO, and our operations, most obviously Afghanistan. 

I spend a lot of time trying to get one Ally to contribute more trainers, or another to agree to pay for a critical military capability, or in the media trying to maintain support for the mission in countries where people are often very skeptical. 

But it has now been more than eight years since this operation began – longer than the entire Second World War.  I think the time has come also to take a step back, lift our eyes from the day-to-day issues, and draw some lessons. 

Formal work on that should start soon in NATO Headquarters in Brussels.  But I’d like to use the opportunity of being here today to offer some initial thoughts of my own.

This is more than just academic, even if we are in a lecture hall.  At the end of this year, NATO Heads of State and Government, including President Obama, will agree a new Strategic Concept, a guiding document for NATO which we publish about once every ten years.  It will set out what NATO should do, where it should be done, and how, for the coming decade.

The work on developing it is fully underway – Madeleine Albright, who is heading up a team of experts, will submit an initial proposal to me in a few weeks.  I have no doubt that the lessons we’ve learned in Afghanistan will help shape this very important Strategic Concept. 

Let me start by taking you back to my third day in this job, the 5th of August last year.  At six in the morning, I boarded a USAir Force C-17 transport aircraft in Brussels and flew to Afghanistan. 

I wanted to see first hand how the operation was going, and how the new Commander, General McChrystal, intended to conduct it.

As soon as I arrived, General McChrystal took me into his briefing room in ISAF Headquarters, and put up onto a big screen a graphic display of all the factors, military and civilian, we had to take into account if we are to succeed, and all the interconnections between them.  There were hundreds of lines, going in every direction.  It looked like someone had dumped a huge pot of cooked spaghetti onto the projector.

The complexity of that graph was intended to make a very simple point:  everything is connected. In Afghanistan, there can be no development without security.  But equally, there can be no lasting security without development.

Let me give you an example.  NATO and Afghan forces have just cleared Marjeh, an area in Helmand province that has been a centre of Taliban activity and of opium production.  The Taliban have no more safe haven there. 

Does that mean that the operation was a success?  Not yet.  The people who live there need to see that their kids get schooling, that there is health care, and that the police provide security rather than shaking down the population themselves. 

If those things don’t happen, the people in Marjeh will continue to reject their government.  The Taliban will be back.  And the success of the military phase – in which 12 NATO soldiers died – will have been for nothing.

Which brings me back to the spaghetti chart, and to my first lesson learnt.  When I saw it, I congratulated General McChrystal on his analysis, because I agree:  everything is, indeed, connected.  The military mission cannot ultimately succeed until the civilian aspects – better governance, improved development, and a rising economy – succeed. 

But my first questions were these:  who is going to do all these things?  And how do we ensure that what everyone is doing is coherent and mutually reinforcing, rather than simply running on separate tracks?

The answer is that we need what we call a comprehensive approach. And that is the first lesson of this mission. The days when the military could defeat the enemy, then hand the baton off to the civilians and go home, are past us. 

And Afghanistanis not unique.  There are 16 major armed conflicts underway today.  All of them are within, rather than between states.  In many cases, it is the basic pillars of society that need to be rebuilt.  This means that the military and civilians need to work much more closely than they have in the past.

That might seem obvious and easy to do.  It isn’t.  And there is a bit of a strange paradox in how this has evolved.  At the national level, NATO Governments have generally moved towards a “whole of Government” approach to Afghanistan. 

Diplomats, defense ministries and development experts sit together, plan together and operate together, including in Provincial Reconstruction Teams all over Afghanistan.

But at the international level, this lesson has simply not yet been learnt. Let me illustrate it by a concrete example. The European Union does both development and police training in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the EU and NATO do not plan or coordinate together. For political reasons totally separate from Afghanistan.

 The same is basically true of NATO and the United Nations.  I consider this to be an unacceptable waste of resources and effectiveness. 

The lack of communication with non-governmental organizations is also striking.  I recently suggested publicly that we needed to work more closely with NGOs, so that their “soft power” could complement our hard power. 

Their reaction, I can tell you, was not very receptive. I think they are worried about becoming a party to a conflict. They wish to remain neutral. Therefore, they are often reluctant to work under military protection.

I fully understand those objections. But we have to discuss this and work it through.  Because in a situation where everything is connected, but where NATO cannot do everything, there must be more discussion and, where appropriate, more coordination between the military and civilian sides, from the planning stages to field operations.  In peacetime, we must get to know each other and train together, for the inevitable moment when we are thrown together in a real crisis. 

We also need to look, within NATO, at what civilian roles the Alliance itself might need to develop. We’ve put a senior civilian representative in Afghanistan to work the political issues, alongside the military commander.  It’s a first. Some were uncomfortable when we put this in place. But it’s necessary. And it might be necessary again.

To my mind, none of this is abstract theory. The less effective we are at adopting a comprehensive approach, the longer it will take for this mission to succeed.  Last year, NATO lost more than one soldier a day, on average, in Afghanistan. That math is clear. And behind the math are lost lives. And it must not be ignored. We cannot allow old-think to hold us back.  The cost is far too high.

This brings me to my second lesson. We don’t just need better relations with other international organizations and NGOs.  To my mind, NATO also needs to institutionalize a broad and inclusive security dialogue and, where appropriate, partnership with relevant countries from around the world.

Now, this might seem non-controversial to you.  And frankly, I think it should be.  But some fear NATO stretching itself too thin.  Others are afraid that NATO wants to rival the UN.  For these reasons among others, there is hesitation about NATO engaging more systematically with countries like India or China.

These are understandable concerns.  But I think they can be addressed.  Afghanistan is proof, to my mind, of the vital importance of broader partnerships for successful international missions.

We already have 45 countries in the NATO–led mission, 28 NATO countries and now 17 non-NATO as well. That alone is a powerful political coalition, which has stuck together and even grown despite the difficulty of this mission.

But I believe we need to go farther – to engage countries that don’t necessarily send troops, but that have a clear interest in the outcome.  Let me mention Pakistan, India and China in particular.  Another stakeholder is Russia. Afghanistan is not an island.  To me, it only makes sense to engage in dialogue with them, on how to best work together to help bring peace and security to Afghanistan.

The key word is “cooperative security”. If we are to accomplish a military mission or prevent conflict, we must engage with the relevant major actors and stakeholders. NATO should become a place where our global partners can come and discuss security issues of common concern. Afghanistan is a case in point.

Those are two overarching political lessons learnt:  the need for a comprehensive approach to peace operations, and the importance of developing our partnerships.  I hope to see both in the new Strategic Concept.  But of course, we have also learned a number of practical, military lessons as well.

The most obvious is the need to reform our militaries.  I will not bore you with the technical details of the engine power of transport helicopters, or the effect of heat and height on their ability to fly. 

What it boils down to is this.  We have huge legacy armed forces left over from the Cold War.  Millions of soldiers, but too few able to be sent overseas to fight.  Huge stockpiles of tanks and fighter aircraft we don’t use, but not enough big transport aircraft to get us where we need to go.  And yes, helicopters unable to fly in the height and heat of Afghanistan, where we actually need them.

A lot has already been done to transform NATO’s armed forces.  The US is undoubtedly miles ahead of most other NATO countries, because you’ve always built your forces for expeditionary operations.

But Afghanistan has taught us all that we need to build much more deployable forces.  That we need to team up to buy the kind of transport or logistics that might be too expensive for individual countries.  And that we need to cut back on fixed infrastructure, to invest in new capabilities.

While the list of urgent requirements is long, there is one in particular that I think doesn’t get enough attention:  the ability to train. 

In 2001, Afghanistan basically had no state structures left.  No national government.  No army.  No police.  Everything had to be built from scratch.

The truth is that we took far too long to realize that, until the Afghans are capable of providing security, we will have to do it.  Which means that training Afghan security forces isn’t a secondary or tertiary military mission; it is at the core of our eventual exit strategy. 

We should have factored training of local security forces into our thinking and our planning from the beginning.  We didn’t.  But last year, we finally set up a NATO Training Mission to oversee the training of Afghan police and Afghan army.  That’s the kind of thing we must keep in mind for any future mission.

But we also need to have the trainers to do the job.  And we don’t.  In fact, it is easier to get a battalion of 800 infantry soldiers than it is to get 50 trainers to deploy into a war zone. 

Armies have lots of brigades, and battalions, and platoons.  But they’ve never really planned and prepared to train others.  Police, even less so.  Which is why the fourth lesson I’ve drawn from the Afghanistan mission is that NATO needs to develop training as a core capability. NATO countries need to do the same. And we need to build these capabilities so that they are ready and deployable when we need them.

Of course, NATO’s core business is and will remain the defense of our territory and our populations.  But today, that sometimes means going far from our physical borders – even to cyberspace.  That expeditionary focus will also need to be an important part of the Strategic Concept.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

These are important lessons learnt from Afghanistan.

First, there is no military solution to conflicts solely. We must strengthen the interaction between military security and civilian development – a comprehensive approach.

Second, we must engage in dialogue and consultation with important actors and stakeholders by developing our global partnerships.

Third, we must reform our militaries and build more deployable forces.

Fourth, we must develop a capacity to train and educate local security forces.

And finally, there is one more lesson I believe we should take away from this mission:  the power and the potential of NATO.

Now, I know that some in the United States complain that NATO is too cumbersome, too bureaucratic, and too complicated for the Afghanistan mission.  And I am the first to oppose bureaucracy.  Believe me. 

But when I look at this operation, I see something different.  I see the solidarity of all NATO Allies on display. On September 11, 2001, the United States was attacked by terrorists. The day after, on September 12, NATO Allies invoked article 5 of the NATO Treaty – the article which states that an attack on one NATO member state is considered an attack on all Allies. For the first time in the history of NATO, Allies invoked our collective defense agreement.

That was true solidarity - and it is as strong as ever today.  I see that the number of countries under the NATO umbrella has now risen to 45 – despite all the casualties, and all the challenges.  I see that 40% of the one-hundred-thousand troops come from non-US countries. I see that non-US countries take about 40% of the casualties as well:  true burden sharing. 

To my mind, a fundamental lesson of Afghanistanis that NATO can take on the toughest operation in the world. Maintain its unity, and its cohesion, and its strength, over years, in the most challenging conditions.  And, I’m quite sure, prevail.  I believe that when this mission is complete, the Alliance will emerge stronger, more effective and more united than ever.

Thank you for your attention, and I’m happy to take any questions.