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Lack of bilateral agreement would be blow to Afghan army, NATO chief says

STUTTGART, Germany — NATO’s top official warned on Monday that failure to achieve a Status of Forces agreement with Afghanistan could result not just in a “zero option” for foreign troops remaining there after 2014, but it also puts at risk further financial assistance for the government’s security forces.

“I don’t know how the Afghans will be able to pay soldiers and police if they don’t get financial support from the international community,” Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told journalists in Brussels.

Afghanistan relies almost entirely on foreign aid to fund its 350,000-strong army and police forces, which NATO has spent years building from scratch.

Without NATO forces in Afghanistan after 2014, countries also could pull back on development aid, Rasmussen said.

“That’s what’s at stake for Afghan society; it would be a very unfortunate outcome but that’s the risk we’re running due to uncertainty about the BSA and SOFA,” Rasmussen said.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has so far refused to sign a Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States to ensure an American military presence in the country. That agreement is needed for NATO’s own Status of Forces deal with Afghanistan. While no deadline has been set for signing the pact, U.S. and NATO officials have repeatedly declared the document is needed “sooner rather than later.”

U.S. military commanders reportedly hope to keep 10,000 troops in the country after the formal combat mission ends later this year.

Besides winding down combat operations and preparing for a training and advisory effort in Afghanistan, NATO needs to be ready for new threats in the years ahead, Rasmussen said.

He credited France in particular with playing a larger role on the international security scene.

“On Mali and (the Central African Republic), first if all I’d like to commend France for swift and determined action in both countries,” Rasmussen said. “These French-led operations are essential to prevent terrorist groups from advancing and to save lives.”

While NATO has no plans to get involved in military operations in those nations, Rasmussen noted that NATO members are playing a role under the European Union banner.

“I would very much like to see Europe and European allies take more responsibility for tasks when it comes to security, so their engagement in these African operations are highly appreciated,” he said.

Last year, France launched an intervention in Mali that targeted Islamic militants, most notably al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. In the Central African Republic, French forces are part of an international peace keeping effort aimed at stemming sectarian bloodshed.

As for NATO, Rasmussen said allies will need to focus in the year ahead on efforts to maintain the alliance’s combat readiness as the war in Afghanistan winds down.

“First, we must invest in the capabilities we need to deal with the risks and challenges that we face. From terrorism, piracy and instability in our neighborhood, to missile and cyberattacks,” Rasmussen said. “I expect European allies to play their full part in developing critical capabilities, such as joint intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and missile defense.”

As European economies begin to recover from a lengthy crisis, “we need to show the political will to keep defense in Europe strong,” he said.

Although NATO has repeatedly urged its European members to spend at least2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense, in practice most European nations have made deep cuts to their military budgets and the vast majority have consistently fallen below that budgetary target. Currently, the U.S. share of NATO defense expenditures amounts to about 72 percent of the alliance’s total sum.

Meanwhile, Rasmussen said NATO must beef up its Connected Forces Initiative through joint training efforts and exercises, he said.

vandiver.john@stripes.com
Twitter: @john_vandiver

 

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