NATO chief offers a bleak analysis

Posted in NATO | 03-Jul-04 | Author: Elaine Sciolino| Source: The New York Times

NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer (R) watches Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai speaking at a working session of the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council during the NATO Summit in Istanbul, June 29, 2004.
Iraq and Afghanistan both seen at risk

BRUSSELS NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer warned Friday that Afghanistan and Iraq were doomed to be failed states if the United States and the international community did not find a way to work together to save them.

He also sharply criticized the Bush administration as abandoning NATO as an alliance and using it mainly when it suited Washington's interests. "Can we afford two failed states in pivotal regions?" de Hoop Scheffer said in an interview. "It's both undesirable and unacceptable if either Afghanistan or Iraq were to be lost. The international community can't afford to see those countries going up in flames. There would be enormous repercussions for stability, and not only in those regions."

Afghanistan, he said, risked "falling back under the Taliban," the authoritarian, fundamentalist regime that was a haven for Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda terrorist network until the United States overthrew it after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

He said the security situation and the risk of the spread of terrorism from those countries was so serious that the United States had to come together with all international organizations, including NATO, the European Union, the United Nations and the international donor community, and forge a common strategy.

De Hoop Scheffer's bleak analysis of the situation in Afghanistan and Iraq contrasts with the rosier view of the Bush administration, which has portrayed the countries as destined to become stable democracies that will serve as models for the region.

The Bush administration desperately wants more foreign troops in Iraq but has failed to win the support of NATO to send troops there. At the NATO summit meeting in Istanbul this week, the United States won only vague backing for a proposal for NATO to train Iraqi military and police forces, with President Jacques Chirac of France insisting that the training would be conducted by individual nations and not under a NATO flag.

But de Hoop Scheffer made clear that his top priority as secretary general is not Iraq but Afghanistan, NATO's first military operation outside its historic area of operations.

He has never endorsed the American view that NATO troops should be on the ground in Iraq. However, he said in the interview that he will do all that he can to fulfill the request made to NATO by Iraq's interim prime minister, Iyad Allawi, to train its security forces.

"This should be a NATO operation in Iraq," he said, but stressed that the United States has to be fully engaged in the NATO mission to make it a success and not treat it as an operation that is somehow a separate project for NATO, minus America.

He was particularly critical of the Bush administration's idea that the military mission defines what kind of international coalition of countries it puts together, adding that if the United States did not work in an integrated way inside the NATO structure then the Europeans would move toward creating their own security structures.

"If the mission defines the coalition, then you don't need NATO," he said. "You will then see the Europeans falling into each other's arms." He said he had a "simple message" for Washington regarding NATO: "Get engaged." The Bush administration has criticized an initiative by a number of European countries, led by France and Germany, to create a European defense and security identity, claiming that it would be an unnecessary duplication of NATO functions. But de Hoop Scheffer said he had no problem with the European Union's fledgling efforts to build its own defense identity, as long as it does not duplicate NATO's role.

A Dutchman who was once his country's foreign minister, de Hoop Scheffer is little known outside the narrow corridors of power in Brussels. Since taking over the NATO post earlier this year, he has spent much of his time pleading with the United States and the 25 other alliance countries to deliver the troops, military equipment and money that are needed to fulfill the ambitious political goals they set for the organization, most dramatically in Afghanistan.

"I have felt like a beggar sometimes, and if the secretary general of NATO feels like a beggar, the system is wrong," he said. He called on the United States to help reorganize the mission in Afghanistan in which the United States leads one force that is designed to hunt down Osama bin Laden and Qaeda operatives but does not participate on the ground in the main NATO force whose mission is to bring stability to the country.

"The Afghan model is not a model I like," he said. He also criticized the Bush administration for not committing troops to the NATO Response Force, an emergency force that was set up following an initiative by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld two years ago. At the NATO summit meeting, as Afghan President Hamid Karzai urged NATO to send more troops urgently.

But while the United States and NATO's military planners argued that the new response force should be used in Afghanistan, Chirac, whose country is a major contributor to the NATO force and will soon command NATO operations in Kosovo and Afghanistan, insisted that they should stay on standby as an emergency crisis team.

De Hoop Scheffer may be the most powerful civilian in the most powerful military alliance in the world, but as the NATO summit meeting illustrated, he is also the man in the middle. He is caught between the Bush administration that turns to the alliance when it furthers U.S. policies and a number of European countries, led by France, that oppose using NATO to do America's bidding.

In their private meeting on Sunday, Bush did not even inform him of the decision to turn over sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government two days early. Bush mentioned it to him shortly before they entered the formal NATO meeting the following morning where the decision was announced.