Man on a mission

BRUSSELS — NATO’s new secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen took over Saturday with this last-minute legacy from the outgoing administration: July 2009 was the deadliest month ever for international troops in Afghanistan.

In a wide-ranging news conference held on his first day in office, the former Danish prime minister ranked success in Afghanistan as his top priority.

NATO in Afghanistan

With remarks clearly aimed at boosting long-flagging support among allies for continuing the almost eight-year-old effort, Rasmussen warned that Afghanistan must be prevented “from becoming again the Grand Central Station of international terrorism.”

He said the near-term priority was to help facilitate elections, scheduled for August 20, that are considered credible by the Afghan people. NATO has been playing an active role in trying to have in place the elements for a fair vote, helping to distribute polling materials, arranging protection for observers and providing general security for campaign events.

Rasmussen also laid out some bold longer-term goals for NATO in Afghanistan, saying that by the end of his four-year term he'd like to see Afghan — and not NATO — forces heading up security for the country.

But he paired that challenge with reassurance for Kabul — as well as tough words for Taliban insurgents.

“Let no Taliban propagandist try to sell my message as a run for the exit — it is not,” he said. “We will support the Afghan people for as long as it takes. Let me repeat that: for as long as it takes.”

But, well aware that NATO involvement in Afghanistan has already gone on too long for some governments and their publics, Rasmussen said that he intended to show all stakeholders there was “more light at the end of the tunnel.” He was not specific about what positive developments he plans to cite, but he was emphatic.

“It will not be easy — and the last month has made that bitterly clear,” he said, “but it can be done and we will do it. Let there be no doubt about that.”

NATO and Russia after the Georgia conflict

After Afghanistan, Rasmussen listed his second priority as repairing and reinforcing NATO’s partnership with Russia, badly damaged by last year’s conflict between Russia and NATO aspirant Georgia, which caused a temporary freeze in relations and left a sour aftertaste.

Even as he spoke in favor of closer ties, Rasmussen left no one question about the alliance’s disapproval of Russia’s move to officially recognize the autonomy of the separatist Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Moscow’s decision to do so was widely condemned among Western powers.

“I’m not a dreamer,” Rasmussen said. “It is obvious that there will be fundamental issues on which we disagree. We have to insist, for example, that Russia fully complies with its international obligations, including respecting the territorial integrity and political freedom of its neighbors.”

He said, however, that he did not want this and other disagreements with Moscow to “poison the whole relationship.”

NATO and the Muslim world

Finally, Rasmussen showed he would deal head-on with a problem that has plagued him professionally, including in his ascent to this position: his reputation in the Muslim world. As Danish prime minister, Rasmussen refused to apologize when a newspaper in his country was the first to run a series of controversial caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. He cited the right to freedom of expression as the reason for not stepping in to calm the uproar.

The matter remains sensitive enough that Muslim countries, represented by NATO member Turkey, said they would not accept Rasmussen if he were made secretary general. The stalemate was only overcome in April once Turkey was promised that one of Rasmussen’s deputies would be Turkish and that there would be more Turks inside NATO’s command structure.

Rasmussen also said he would be willing to force the closure of Roj TV — a station based in Denmark which Turks say is aligned with separatist Turkish Kurds — if a Danish court found the channel guilty of having terrorist links.

Many Muslims, however, are still waiting for him to apologize, which is highly unlikely. What he does plan to do is to spend a lot of time listening to Muslim partner countries for other ways to improve cooperation between them and NATO. Rasmussen said he's already invited ambassadors in for private chats as he considers next steps for the alliance and himself.

But there are doubts this will be enough to ensure Rasmussen’s acceptance. Omer Taspinar, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and a columnist in the Turkish “Today’s Zaman” newspaper, is among the skeptics.

“The Muslim world is not a monolith,” Taspinar explained. “My sense is that even secular types see a kind of insensitivity and arrogance in the selection of Rasmussen as secretary general, especially at a time when NATO is involved in a crucial mission in the heart of the Islamic world. Short of a clear and heartfelt apology, I don't see Turkish, Arab, Pakistani and even Indonesian public opinion warming up to Rasmussen.”

The new NATO chief is nonetheless preparing to hear that for himself; he says one of his first trips will be to Turkey.