Europe must boost Afghanistan mission: Outgoing NATO chief


Brussels : European members of NATO must not slacken their military efforts in the struggle against the radical Islamic Taliban in Afghanistan, outgoing NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has said.

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“Afghanistan is not US President Barack Obama’s war. It’s our war, the international community’s,” de Hoop Scheffer said in Brussels Monday during an interview.

Speaking four days before a NATO summit in Baden-Baden, Germany, and Strasbourg, France, the NATO chief said it would be wrong to think that NATO should no longer focus “on the military side of the coin”. That, he said, would be “a bit too easy”.

Alluding to Obama’s announcement that the US would send 17,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, de Hoop Scheffer said: “The allies need to ensure that they all do their part. I wouldn’t like to see a mission that is out of balance in this regard.”

Each NATO member has “put more resources into the mission”, he said. “And if it can’t be done on the military side, then it should be done on the civilian side.”

NATO’s mission in Afghanistan will be one of the central topics of discussion at the alliance’s summit Friday and Saturday. Last week, Obama said Washington aimed to boost its efforts at civilian reconstruction in Afghanistan as well as cooperation with Afghanistan’s neighbours and international organisations.

“I think the Obama plan is realistic about what can be achieved within what timelines. That means we won’t be able to turn Afghanistan into a Switzerland in a few years’ time,” de Hoop Scheffer said.

He noted that European countries including the Netherlands, Britain, Poland and Italy were increasing their troop contingents in Afghanistan. “But I think more should be done,” he said.

“Unfortunately, the need for a combat mission is as real as it ever was. Not everywhere are things going well. Not for nothing did President Obama announce a beefed-up military presence,” he went on.

“This means the non-American allies will need to do what they have to do.”

De Hoop Scheffer said that NATO countries in particular were called upon to contribute considerable financial resources to Afghanistan as well. He said that during Tuesday’s Afghanistan conference in The Hague he would also ask non-NATO members to participate in a fund providing some $2 billion annually just to sustain the new 134,000-man Afghan Army.

He did not say how large the fund would have to be in total.

“Two billion dollars is a lot of money, but only if you look at it in isolation,” the NATO chief said, pointing out that the cost of NATO’s operation in Afghanistan was estimated at roughly $42 billion a year.

“And I’m not counting the immeasurable loss of the lives of our soldiers, which, if you add up ISAF (the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force) and (US-led) Operation Enduring Freedom, is about 1,000 since 2001.”

De Hoop Scheffer said the NATO summit would also signal to Russia the alliance’s wish for a resumption of closer ties. The work of the NATO-Russia Council had been suspended following Russia’s incursion into Georgia in August 2008.

He said he was convinced that Russia, too, wanted a better relationship, “although the rhetoric is not always very helpful”.

“I want to be realistic. It won’t get better just because we want it to,” he remarked, citing such “substantive areas of disagreement” as Georgia and its breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

“But we need to engage with Russia on issues where we should engage,” he said.

Saying that neither NATO’s financing system nor the workings of its Brussels headquarters were optimal, de Hoop Scheffer called for internal reforms. “I do think that the way we do business and the structure of this headquarters is still very much Cold War-oriented, and I think it should really be modernised,” he said.

But reforms should not be radical, he cautioned: “Revolution in NATO usually doesn’t work. I can tell you that from five years’ experience.”

Turning to discussion of a new strategic orientation for NATO, de Hoop Scheffer warned against trying to do too much. “NATO is at greater risk of putting too much on its plate than too little. We have a lot on our plate at NATO, not only in Afghanistan.

“We shouldn’t have more on the plate than we can swallow.”