Advice From NATO

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

PRESIDENT OBAMA'S very public wavering over whether to stick with the strategy for Afghanistan that he adopted six months ago is producing some unusual spectacles. One is the awkward gap that has opened between the president and the military commander he appointed in June, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who drew up a plan to implement the strategy -- only to learn he had been left out on a limb that might be sawn off. Another is the lobbying of the president by NATO allies who find themselves trying to keep the United States from abandoning the mission they joined. Their spokesman in Washington this week has been the NATO secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who in a diplomatic but direct way has been telling Mr. Obama that "we don't need a new strategy."

Mr. Rasmussen, a former prime minister of Denmark who took over the NATO post in August, made that remark in a meeting with us Tuesday. The day before he delivered a speech at the Atlantic Council in which he said that the 41-member international alliance in Afghanistan must "do more now, if we want to be able to do less later." While not specifically addressing Gen. McChrystal's request for the deployment of tens of thousands more U.S. troops, Mr. Rasmussen called for a greatly stepped-up effort to train the Afghan army and jump-start development programs through the Afghan government. "None of this will be easy," he said. "We will need to have patience. We will need more resources. And we will lose more young soldiers."

In our conversation, Mr. Rasmussen made clear that he sees no alternative to the principles that Mr. Obama endorsed in March and that Gen. McChrystal made the basis of his plan: protection of the Afghan population and support for the creation of an effective and accountable Afghan government. "Basically I share [Gen. McChrystal's] view," Mr. Rasmussen said. "The essence of his view is to pursue a more population-centered approach." The right policy, Mr. Rasmussen said, "is definitely not an exit strategy. It's of crucial importance to stress that we will stay as long as it takes to stabilize the country."

Mr. Obama recently questioned whether support for the Afghan government was an essential U.S. interest. But Mr. Rasmussen stressed that "we need a stable government in Afghanistan, a government that we can deal with. Otherwise we would be faced with constant instability in Afghanistan and in the region." Some in and outside the administration are advocating a more limited strategy centered on strikes against terrorist targets with drones and Special Forces troops. But Mr. Rasmussen said, "we need more than just hitting individual targets in the mountains. We need to stabilize the Afghan society. We need to create . . . a society with a government that reflects the will of the people."

"I think it would be appropriate if I indicated that a [strategy] aimed at hitting some targets in the mountains and in Pakistan would not find broad support among the allies," said the NATO chief.

Mr. Rasmussen pointed out that NATO is still deeply invested in the Afghan mission: There are 38,000 troops there from countries other than the United States, and soldiers from 13 armies are fighting alongside the Americans on the main southern battlefronts. If Mr. Obama decides to abandon or scale back the fight against the Taliban, not only U.S. and Afghan interests will be affected; the Atlantic alliance will suffer its own strategic setback.

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