′The most critical issues are not on NATO′s agenda′ | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 15.05.2012
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'The most critical issues are not on NATO's agenda'

On Afghanistan and missile defense NATO risks taking a wrong turn at its upcoming summit, a former US ambassador to the alliance tells DW. And, he adds, the most crucial issues didn’t even make it on the agenda.

Kurt Volker served as US ambassador to NATO from 2008 to 2009. He is currently a professor of practice at Arizona State University, a senior fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University and a senior advisor of the Atlantic Council of the United States.

DW: From a NATO perspective what are the most pressing issues to be solved during the upcoming summit?

Kurt Volker: I think that three issues have been set for the principal items of the agenda. That is Afghanistan, defense capabilities which is labeled as smart defense and working together with partners as NATO has been doing for some time. Those are the three issues. That being said, I am very worried about all three of them. I think that on Afghanistan what we have seen over the past two weeks is really distressing. And it's not the individual incidents per se, the shootings, or the Koran burning, the demonstrations or the green on blue attacks. What's really disturbing is that we don't seem to have any objectives, any clear goals in Afghanistan anymore. We used to talk about trying to strengthen the government, trying to defeat the drug trade, trying to build schools and provide education, defend women's rights, provide better governance. We had a long-term strategy for helping Afghanistan get onto its feet.

These days all you hear about, the only thing anyone talks about is how to get out, how do we handover to the Afghan security forces, stand them up to take responsibility and get out. No other objectives are being discussed. And to me that is a very dangerous drift in why we are there and what we are doing and it creates the conditions where these incidents then become very dramatic and illustrate that we have a real problem.

Let's stick with Afghanistan for a moment: Apparently the US has been floating a proposal within NATO that calls for a more drastic NATO troop reduction in Afghanistan in 2014 than currently planned. Do you expect NATO to agree to a bigger troop drawdown as previously planned at the summit?

Yes, I do. It's interesting we had the UK Prime Minister David Cameron here in Washington earlier this year and the outcome of his meeting with President Obama was they agreed that we would hand over responsibility to the Afghans on security in 2013 and have those withdrawals accelerated so that we are out by 2014.

That I think is something that will be welcomed among the other allies. No one really wants to be there anymore and certainly no one wants to be there after the United States goes. So I think whatever the US says as a timeline, people will just go along with that timeline.

This came up earlier in the year with Defense Secretary Panetta going to NATO for a defense ministers meeting and at that meeting floating the idea of 2013 as a time for handing over. That was the first time any American official had talked about 2013, until then it had always been 2014. And it caused quite a stir at NATO at the time because it was new and because the French had been talking about 2013 and the United States had been pushing back on that. But then with Panetta coming out on that it clearly was reflecting the thinking internally in Washington and that is certainly where things are going.

US Ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker gestures during an interview

Kurt Volker, former US NATO ambassador

Another key topic at the summit will be NATO's planned missile defense, despite Moscow's decision not to attend the summit. Under these circumstances, how likely is a deal with Moscow and how should NATO react if this can't be done?

I think there is zero chance of an agreement with Russia on preceding fully with missile defense. They have said from the beginning including at the Lisbon summit that they want to be fully a part of all the decision making about NATO's missile defense system and that they do not want any interceptors or radars in place in Central and Eastern Europe. That was never going to be acceptable to the development of the missile defense system. It was just a time bomb that the Russians have built into the agreement in Lisbon.

We are seeing several things now: We have US progress on missile defense. We have a NATO agreement on the phased adapted approach on missile defense. The US is moving ahead and our technology development and development of assets is going well. On the NATO missile defense you are going to see the deployment of the initial capabilities - Aegis ships with radars and missiles - probably even announced at Chicago or in conjunction with that somehow. So that the initial phases of the NATO system will go forward. There won't be any NATO-Russian agreement in general and then because of that I don't think you are going to see a progress on the medium or long-term phases of a NATO misile defense system.

I am afraid that there will be a few countries, probably Germany included, who will say it is not worth proceeding with those things if it is going to cause a rift with Russia. I think that would be a mistake to let Russia set the tone or the basis of what NATO sees as necessary for its own defense needs, but I think this is where we are going to be in the medium and the short-term at least for a while.

NATO has also said it wants to build closer ties to countries in the Middle East and Africa, an area where NATO of course has been very engaged with its Libya campaign. Do you expect any decisions to be made on cooperating with countries in the region or is this more rhetoric than action?

I am not aware of any concrete things that are going to be agreed. I think it's not quite fair to say it's more rhetoric than action, because there has been more direct cooperation between NATO and some countries in the Middle East or the Gulf than had been the case before. So there has been progress there. If you look at the Libya operation, NATO's role was rather limited - the air campaign and the no-fly-zone. Very few allies took part in it. And Germany didn't for example. And yet it was Qatar and the UAE that played a decisive role in helping the rebels in Libya, helping them overthrow Gadhafi and actually delivering a success that NATO has taken some credit for.

Summing it all up then, what are your expectations of the NATO summit in Chicago?

I am rather concerned that NATO is not doing well on the three issues that are on the table Afghanistan, working with partners where there is nothing really new and especially defense capabilities - everybody is cutting including the United States and including the United States pulling forces out of Europe. I am concerned on those fronts. And then are the things that are not on the agenda that are the most important issues and NATO is not tackling them: Syria, Iran and where we are going in supporting transition and democratic change in the broader Middle East region. I think these are some of the most critical issues that we are facing and they are not on NATO's agenda.

Interview: Michael Knigge
Editor: Rob Mudge