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Man on a mission

Anders Fogh Rasmussen has laid out his priorities as head of the NATO alliance, and touched on his troubled past.

Former Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen holds his first news conference as NATO secretary-general at the alliance headquarters in Brussels, Aug. 3, 2009. Rasmussen succeeded NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer as head of the alliance. (Yves Herman/Reuters)

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.