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U.S. Will Press Broad NATO ‘Offensive’ in Afghanistan

Interviewee: Kurt Volker
Interviewer: Robert McMahon, Editor
January 22, 2007

(Matej Družnik)

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is currently involved in its largest ever ground battles against resurgent Taliban forces in the south of Afghanistan. Its deployment across Afghanistan has swelled to about 32,000 troops and thousands more are expected to try to stabilize a country still beset by instability, a booming drug trade, and governance challenges, as this Council Special Report outlines.

One of the U.S. State Department’s chief officials responsible for NATO policy, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Kurt Volker, says Washington will press in upcoming NATO meetings of foreign and defense ministers for more vigorous action in Afghanistan. Volker says in response to reports of a looming Taliban offensive in the spring, “we want to have our own offensive” that would include everything from reconstruction to assisting in the destruction of opium poppy crops. NATO also needs to overcome the challenge, Volker said, of combat restrictions placed on some of its troops by national governments. “We can’t have an alliance where some are fighting and some are not.”

You hear increasingly that the success or failure of NATO is tied to Afghanistan. With this upcoming ministerial [January 26] what can one expect to be decided on NATO and Afghanistan?

Well, first of all, Afghanistan is NATO’s most important mission. It’s a major project NATO is taking on. If you remember in 2003 NATO was in Kabul only as ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] and has expanded to cover the whole country. It’s got over 32,000 troops in ISAF now. The U.S. is about 12,000 of those and we have others in the area. It is the big thing for NATO to get right. The Riga summit in November last year was very good for firmly establishing political unity among the allies that we think the mission in Afghanistan is right and we want to succeed at this but we need to take that to another level of concrete commitments and engagement. And so the secretary [Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice] decided that she wanted to get together with her counterparts in NATO to talk about what are the next steps in Afghanistan. There’s a lot of talk, you hear it in the media, about a spring offensive, that the Taliban has a military offensive in mind for the spring. Well, we want to have our own offensive and it should be civilian and military, it should be broad gauged, it should be reconstruction, development, it should be counter-narcotics and it should be security and military as well. And that’s what she wants to talk about with her counterparts, to go through the various elements of what’s needed in Afghanistan and go from a general level of political commitment to a concrete level of actual support.

So, an offensive, you say. This involves, one assumes, some greater commitment of troop strength, which is the big issue under debate in these countries?

Let me break it down into pieces. First, let’s start with the military ones. There is currently a joint statement of requirements for the military operation and it’s about 85 percent filled. So there’s a gap in what we would need there. We have a new supreme allied commander, General [Bantz J.] Craddock. Craddock is reviewing the statement of requirements. We expect it to change a little bit because of what we are looking ahead toward in Afghanistan rather than looking backwards, looking ahead. And we’ll get from him a new statement of what the requirements are and there will still be gaps and we will need to then look at ourselves, the United States, and all of our allies and say how are we going to fill our gaps and what are they—maneuver battalions, communications. Whatever it is, SACEUR [NATO’S Supreme Allied Commander, Europe] will tell us what he needs. The second part of the military side is the flexibility of forces on the ground, the issue of caveats [restrictions by national governments on troop activities]. We understand that in some countries these are domestic political issues, very hard to cut through, parliaments are involved. At the same time, the principle is right that there needs to be solidarity among the allies and we need to share the risks. We can’t have an alliance where some are fighting and some are not.

Then you go to the issue of counternarcotics. I should say we have a comprehensive strategy for Afghanistan, which includes all these different elements that I’m walking through. Counternarcotics is a key part of that because a huge amount of money is coming out of Afghanistan, illegally, from the narcotics trade. Some of that is going back into the Taliban and local warlords and is causing some of the security problems that we see so we’ve got to have an active counternarcotics strategy as part of our overall strategy. Eradication has to be part of that. There are other things you need to do in counternarcotics as well, like alternative livelihood, and like road building and extending the reach of the federal government, and hearts and minds, [advising] the communities that drug trade is not the trade you want your people and your children to be involved in. But a part of this is going to be eradication, and NATO needs to provide security support for ground-based spraying and ground-based eradication so there’s a piece of that for NATO as well.

Then there’s the reconstruction and development part, where we have a UN presence and we have Afghan government leadership but we have a lot of projects that have not been fully funded included building the ring road, it needs to be completed, we have things like border guards, we have things like police training, we have army training, and we have establishment of institutions of government.

I have heard a number of officials, including U.S. officials, saying if this opportunity is not taken now, the situation could turn bad and the tide could turn back because of general erosion in Afghan support.

I’d say two things about that. One of them, the public opinion data is very supportive of the international support for Afghanistan and for the Afghan government. People feel that they’re better off if the government is functioning, that the international community has played a helpful role. So the public opinion data overall is supportive of what we’re trying to do. That’s an important thing, so we haven’t lost the Afghan public. The concern is that they may have worries about our staying power. They may think that “are we going to abandon Afghanistan for Iraq, do we have the resources to devote to this, do the Europeans have the stomach for staying there when there’s an increase in attacks?” That I can see the Afghan people being worried about and part of what we need to do is assure them: “No, we do have the staying power and we’re determined to succeed.”

This is really taking NATO into new territory. With these elements—counternarcotics strategy, the nation building aspects you mention—is Afghanistan the laboratory for this evolution of NATO?

Yes and no. Yes, Afghanistan is the laboratory and a lot of the ideas that we are doing in Afghanistan are shaping the way we think about the way NATO develops in the future. But at the same time, I want to say that a little bit of this is NATO getting back to what it had been doing, which is, when you think about it, during the Cold War, NATO was the principle place for strategic consultations among the allies about our principle challenges. When our challenges got beyond Europe—that is we did well in central and eastern Europe, in the Balkans, Cold War was over and the principle challenges we have are from the broader Middle East and coming from there terrorism, proliferation, failed states, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and so on—we didn’t have the habit talking amongst our allies about those challenges so much and what we are doing is bringing the strategic dialogue back into NATO where we’re at the table, European allies are at the table, and talking about what we need to do.

It doesn’t mean that NATO is always the best instrument. NATO is not going to have an aid budget. Commanders may have some walking around money immediately after a military operation to provide some immediate relief to the population but they’re not going to do road building and infrastructure. That’s what the World Bank and others will do. We ought to be talking at NATO about energy security and how we can have a strategy for energy independence and sustainability and it probably will be the case that NATO won’t be the executive agent on any of that. Others should do that—energy ministries, the EU perhaps—but nonetheless it’s something that we ought to care about and talk about at NATO. Remember, during the Cold War NATO had and still has a pipeline committee because energy security was a part of the way people thought about the Cold War.

The other area where there’s a big NATO commitment is Kosovo. NATO is going to be on watch after [UN envoy] Martti Ahtisaari’s report comes out and so forth. How much attention is that getting in alliance discussion?

We’ve had a UN discussion going on for the better part of year. We have the Serbia elections now scheduled. We anticipate Ahtisaari will present his proposals just after that in January. We anticipate going to the UN Security Council and seeking a resolution to lift [UN resolution] 1244 [making Kosovo a UN protectorate] and putting in place a new structure that would happen within a couple of months and moving forward from there with some clarity about what the final status of Kosovo would be. That is pretty well teed up in the world of expectations both in Europe and Serbia and Kosovo and so on. The greatest danger is if this slips and we are perceived as being unsure of what we’re doing and where we’re going and radicals could try to exploit that, delay the process and cause incidents on the ground and make things harder, and particularly you worry about both sides. You worry about radicals in Serbia that try to pushSerbiain a more extreme direction when it has been evolving in a more mainstream direction for some time. You worry about radicals on the Kosovo Albanian side who if they feel that their objectives are drifting away might then try to establish new facts on the ground as well. That could lead to an escalation of violent incidents that we would not want to see so I think sticking to the timeline and sticking to executing what everyone’s expectations already are is important to keeping the stability in the region.

I think some people would be surprised to learn that there is a NATO-Russian coordination mechanism. Given the concern over the relationship, how can NATO coordinate with Russia and perhaps ease concern over other issues like the frozen conflicts in Georgia and Moldova?

We should have a lot we can do with Russia as NATO. We have a lot of common concerns about security. We have a lot of reasons to want to cooperate. We’ve been a bit disappointed as this has played out over the last five years since the NATO-Russia Council was established. This cooperation hasn’t been as visible and as dramatic as one would have wanted and I think the Russians themselves have not demonstrated a great interest in working together with NATO. But it is important because we do need to overcome a level of suspicion in Russia about what NATO’s motives and intentions are.

We certainly believe that democratic societies, market economies, stable countries, countries that have peace within their borders, that are doing a good job in fighting corruption and are integrating into the global economy and integrating into mainstream Europe—these are good neighbors. Russia, unfortunately, still seems to act as if it’s a sphere-of-influence competition, that if that sort of development is taking place then it’s not in Russia’s interest. I don’t think there’s a reason for that kind of zero-sum view and NATO-Russia cooperation can be a way of helping demonstrate that we don’t see it as a zero sum, we see it as a positive for everyone. And we hope to bring Russia closer to that view as well.

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