NATO’s secretary-general defended the war in Afghanistan as the alliance faced Afghan anger over civilian deaths, and the possibility of an imminent withdrawal of Dutch troops from the country.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he had called Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai on Monday morning after a NATO air strike killed 27 civilians, including women and a child, in an attack the Afghan government called “unjustifiable.”
“There will be bad days,” Rasmussen said. “I just spoke to President Karzai and expressed my deep regrets and condolences for the latest incidents where Afghan civilians have lost their lives.”
Rasmussen, who spoke at Washington’s Georgetown University, said NATO troops had worked hard to minimize the number of Afghan civilians killed in air strikes after either being mistakenly targeted or caught up in attacks.
“I don’t think that you can be too careful. Every life lost is one life too much,” he said.
Military ‘minimises’ civilian casualties
“It’s not just theory. During the recent years our troops in Afghanistan have succeeded in reducing the number of civilian casualties significantly and we have to continue to minimize the number of civilian casualties.”
Reducing the number of Afghan civilians killed by foreign troops has been a key part of the new strategy advanced by the top US commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal.
He issued an apology Monday for the incident in Daykundi province, in which a civilian convoy was reportedly mistaken for a Taliban group — the third mistaken NATO air strike reported by Afghan officials in a week.
The deaths come as NATO faced a new challenge Monday with news that the Dutch government had collapsed amid disputes about whether it should extend its troop deployment in Afghanistan.
Netherlands asked to stay
Rasmussen asked the Netherlands this month to take on a new training role and remain in Afghanistan until August 2011, a year later than originally planned.
General Stephane Abrial, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Transformation said the potential August withdrawal was simply part of the nature of the alliance.
“It’s a sovereign nation’s decision. Each member of the alliance, according to the terms of the treaty, is entitled to choose how he contributes to global efforts,” he said in Washington.
The loss of Dutch troops would be a blow to international forces as they ramp up efforts to claw back victory through a new strategy combining troop increases, a focus on development, and major operations like that underway in Afghanistan’s south.
Rasmussen emphasized that NATO troops were fully committed to the fight regardless of the Dutch departure, noting that soldiers from 44 nations are currently deployed in Afghanistan under NATO command.
‘Sharing the risks with the US’
They are “sharing the risks, the costs and the burdens with the US,” he said.
“The non-US members make up 40 percent of the total number of forces. They also take 40 percent of the casualties. That is an enormous demonstration of solidarity in fighting terrorism together.”
The alliance head, formerly Denmark’s prime minister, said he believed the new strategy was making progress.
“There is new momentum,” he said. “I am confident that this year we will be able to start transferring security responsibilities to the Afghans themselves — district by district, province by province.”
Afghan mission a difficult test
The Afghan mission has been a difficult test for NATO, which entered the conflict after invoking the collective defense article of its charter for the first time ever following the September 11, 2001 attacks against the United States.
Coordinating command structures with American forces and navigating the rules of engagement binding different national troops has at times provoked friction, but Rasmussen said the alliance had proved capable and credible.
“We are no ad-hoc coalition of the willing and this gives NATO a degree of competence, credibility and legitimacy that encourages even non-NATO countries to put their forces under NATO command,” he said.
The counterinsurgency focus in Afghanistan has also provided the alliance with new lessons, he added.
“The most important lesson learned is that there is no military solution solely to a conflict like the one we have seen in Afghanistan and I think the same will apply to future conflicts.”