NATO’s Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen says that although some progress is being made in Afghanistan, he expects a period of intensified battles and increased losses in the nine year war against the Taleban.
“This doesn’t mean that the operation is in trouble, but it is obvious that we are entering a very demanding phase. We have sent a lot more troops to Afghanistan, so there will be more battles and more losses,” says Fogh Rasmussen in an exclusive interview with Politiken.
On Thursday, Fogh Rasmussen received General David Petraeus, who has now taken over the overall leadership of the 120,000 foreign troops now in Afghanistan from General Stanley McChrystal who was relieved of his duties. One third of those forces are American.
“It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” Petraeus was reported as saying yesterday, something Fogh Rasmussen says he fully agrees with.
Q&A How can you forecast more losses and at the same time say things are moving forward?
“I’m not saying that the security situation is good. There is a lot to do. But we are making progress. Children can go to school and people are able to be on the streets where this was not possible previously. It is unfortunately also true that we see hard battles and a high number of losses. But that is a result of the fact that we have increased the number of soldiers, and that we are now moving in to clear areas such as Marjah in Helmand. The Taleban is being evicted from areas which they previously controlled. This is not something that they do voluntarily. They know that if they lose at Marjah and then later at Kandahar, they will have lost everything. So they hit back hard,” says Fogh Rasmussen. “No-one should be surprised to see more battles and thus, unfortunately, more losses. This is an unavoidable result of going in to clear areas that were previously Taleban strongholds.”
You have given assurances that the strategy will remain the same, and that General Petraeus is a guarantor of that strategy. But it cannot be unimportant that a key person such as General McChrystal has left the scene?
“That sort of thing is always unfortunate. I have had a good cooperation with McChrystal. But it is nothing new in the history of the world that generals are replaced during a war. That is not unusual. And there will not be a change in strategy. Nor in timetables or anything else.”
American troops are complaining that the strategy of primarily protecting civilians rather than hunting the Taleban makes the situation more dangerous. Is that something you will be changing?
“We will continue to concentrate on protecting the population and avoiding civilian losses. General Petraeus has said that he will look into how a strengthening of guidelines for the troops can improve their security. That is a sensible thing to do. But the central goal remains the same. A good relationship with the population, also strengthens the soldiers’ own security.”
The United States has said that it will begin withdrawal next summer. The Netherlands withdraws in August, Canada next year, Australia in 2012. Leading Polish politicians are also talking about it, and the new British prime minister wants out before 2015. Are we on our way out?
“People can discuss and have hopes regarding one year or another, but we are not putting a date on it. There is agreement in the Alliance that we will not withdraw from Afghanistan before the Afghans themselves are able to handle the task of protecting their own country. The Afghan President Karzai has said that he hopes they will be able to do it within five years. But honestly speaking – no-one really knows.”