SPIEGEL: Mr. Secretary General, the NATO mission in Afghanistan has not been going well in the last few years. Now US President Barack Obama has announced a new strategy. He is deploying 30,000 additional troops and is calling on allies to make additional sacrifices. Does this signify a new beginning?
Rasmussen: No. We aren't starting at zero. I would call it a new approach, a supplement to our mission thus far. We are currently beefing up our efforts on all levels.
SPIEGEL: What does that mean?
Rasmussen: We will deploy at least 37,000 additional soldiers, and presumably even more. At the same time, we want to gradually turn over responsibility for the country's security to Afghan soldiers and police. And we need to increase our efforts to train them. It is the responsibility of Afghanistan's new government to gain better control over the country's administration and to resolutely fight the drug trade and corruption. And many countries and organizations have pledged to contribute to civil reconstruction. The European Union already has an action plan, and Japan has pledged $5 billion (€3.4 billion). All of this together adds new momentum to our mission. You'll see, things will soon begin moving ahead in Afghanistan.
SPIEGEL: The displeasure among the populations of the NATO countries involved in the war is growing even more quickly than your commitment. About 70 percent of Germans favor a rapid withdrawal of their troops. How long can democratically governed nations wage a war opposed by a majority of their populations?
Rasmussen: I believe that people understand very well why we are in Afghanistan
SPIEGEL: and why, then, are they in favor of a rapid withdrawal?
Rasmussen: I believe that they understand that, with our troops, we must prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven and pullback area for terrorists. Otherwise, they could use it as a base from which to advance into Central Asia and further. In addition, they would continue to destabilize neighboring Pakistan, a nuclear power. All of this would be very, very dangerous, both for others and for us.
SPIEGEL: Not many people believe that our freedom is truly being defended in Afghanistan. And even the supporters of the Afghanistan mission say: We want to see results, finally.
Rasmussen: I understand that all too well. Perhaps we underestimated the challenges in Afghanistan in the past. That's why we are now strengthening and intensifying our commitment.
SPIEGEL: What exactly is our mission? Do we want to establish a Western-style democracy in Kabul, dig wells and make sure that girls can attend school? Or will we settle for protecting Europe and the United States against the al-Qaida terrorist organization?
Rasmussen: We are in Afghanistan to prevent the country from becoming a hotbed of terrorism once again. We should recall that the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 originated in Afghanistan, and that the inspiration for the attacks in Madrid and Istanbul also came from Afghanistan.
SPIEGEL: The nature of the threat has changed. The New York Times quotes a former CIA officer as saying that there is no longer an al-Qaida in Afghanistan, nor are their any Afghans in al-Qaida. Instead, hasn't neighboring Pakistan become the terrorist center and our real problem?
Rasmussen: We are also concerned about Pakistan, and we cannot view our challenges in Afghanistan separately from the problems in Pakistan. For that reason, our new strategy is based on enhancing cooperation with Islamabad. However, the threat Afghanistan poses to us should not be downplayed. We know, for example, that the Taliban has harbored al-Qaida groups and have an ambition to take over Pakistan, a nuclear power. We would be taking a clear risk by withdrawing without having accomplished our mission first.
SPIEGEL: All the Taliban has to do is wait, particularly now that US President Obama has announced plans to begin withdrawing troops in July 2011. Wasn't it a mistake to offer the enemy a timetable by announcing such withdrawal plans?
Rasmussen: No, no, President Obama did not present an "exit strategy." He held out the prospect of a gradual transfer of power to the Afghans. Withdrawal, however, is only possible once the necessary conditions have been met. We will not be in Afghanistan forever. We will stay as long as it takes to finish our job.
SPIEGEL: So was the American president's mention of July 2011 nothing but an artificial remark?
Rasmussen: Of course not. We assume that we will have made significant progress in transferring the responsibility to the Afghans by then, perhaps even sooner, so that we can begin reducing our troop levels.
SPIEGEL: For now, even more soldiers are being sent to the front, including soldiers from Europe. General Karl-Heinz Lather, the German chief of staff at NATO military headquarters, says that two battalions are needed in the Kunduz region alone, one for combat missions. That could mean up to 2,000 men. What do you expect from Germany?
Rasmussen: I don't want to discuss concrete numbers before the international conference on Afghanistan in London on Jan. 28. However, a number of European governments have already pledged a total of 7,000 new troops in recent weeks. It's more than I expected, and I'm convinced that it will get even better than that.
SPIEGEL: The French are skeptical. And (German Chancellor) Angela Merkel has not held out the prospect of any concrete commitments yet. What makes you so confident that you will in fact get the soldiers you want from Berlin?
Rasmussen: I know very well that Berlin attaches great importance to NATO and solidarity, in terms of sharing the burden. For this reason, I feel confident that the German government will take the right decision, one that serves both German and NATO interests.
SPIEGEL: At the moment, the German public's attention is focused even more heavily on an air strike ordered by Colonel Georg Klein near Kunduz on Sept. 4, in which Taliban leaders were apparently killed, as well as dozens of civilians. What is your opinion of the incident from the perspective of NATO headquarters?
Rasmussen: We are following the debate, of course, but these are classified matters. I neither can nor will comment publicly on the confidential internal ISAF report.
SPIEGEL: But its key conclusions have long since been leaked. Can't the public at least be told whether the ISAF mandate covers the targeted killing of Taliban?
Rasmussen: I cannot comment on any concrete, operational decisions by our commanders in the field.
SPIEGEL: With all due respect, we are not talking about individual decisions, but the principle. Can and should ISAF soldiers intentionally kill Taliban, even when they do not pose a direct threat, that is, are not involved in belligerent actions?
Rasmussen: We have a mandate from the United Nations. We support the Afghan government, so that Afghanistan does not become a place, once again, that poses a threat to us. The operational decisions on how this goal is to be met are made by commanders in the field.
SPIEGEL: Just to be clear: Your response to this direct question is neither yes nor no. Are we conducting a war in Afghanistan, or what is it?
Rasmussen: It is quite clear that our troops are fighting under warlike conditions in certain areas of Afghanistan. But I think the rest of it is semantics.
SPIEGEL: You could end this debate by saying: "Yes, of course, we are at war there." Why do you not have the courage to say this?
Rasmussen: What I'm saying is that there are warlike conditions in some areas.
SPIEGEL: The new German defense minister uses the same language. Do you know Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg?
Rasmussen: Yes. He visited me and made an excellent impression. He is a very engaged minister and I have great expectations.
SPIEGEL: In Kabul, President Hamid Karzai recently secured re-election through a rather crass manipulation of the vote. Is Karzai really a man who we can trust?
Rasmussen: I think President Karzai realizes exactly how important it is to strengthen the fight against corruption in the country now, step up endeavors to stop the drug trade and to deliver better governance. He said as much in his inaugural address.
SPIEGEL: President Karzai has said these sorts of things many times in the past. Why does the West continue to back him, despite the blatant election fraud?
Rasmussen: Even if you take that into account, he did have the most votes in the country. I feel confident that he realizes what is at stake. We will stay committed, but in exchange we expect better governance.
SPIEGEL: Has the tone being used with him become more direct? Are you making it clear to him that there are limits to your patience?
Rasmussen: Yes. If, within the context of our strategy, the Afghan government is to increasingly take control of the country's destiny, it has to demonstrate that it is capable of doing so -- but also that their government offers a better alternative than the Taliban. And it has to gain the trust of the people.
SPIEGEL: When exactly is the NATO mission completely fulfilled? What exactly are the criteria?
Rasmussen: The mission will be fulfilled when the Afghans are capable of governing their country and guaranteeing security. The more we invest in that transition now, the more likely this outcome becomes. This not an exit strategy, but a transition strategy. We will gradually turn over the country to Afghan control, district by district, province by province. And I believe we will be able to start that process by next year.
SPIEGEL: Perhaps the Russians will help you with that. You traveled to Moscow for three days on Tuesday. Did you discuss the issue?
Rasmussen: Yes. I see great potential for further Russian engagement in Afghanistan. Russia has already offered us a transit route for supplies. I could imagine more happening. The Russians could also participate in the training and providing equipment for the Afghan army.
SPIEGEL: Russian politicians have been concerned about NATO's eastward expansion in recent years. They could make closer cooperation contingent upon NATO agreeing not to accept additional former Soviet republics like Georgia and Ukraine as new members. Is such a deal a possibility?
Rasmussen: NATO has been clear on that: Georgia and Ukraine will become NATO members. We made that decision in Bucharest in 2008. When this will happen is still open. It depends on when the two countries fulfill the necessary criteria for membership.
SPIEGEL: And the NATO expansion drive will continue after that?
Rasmussen: I have to make clear that NATO's "open-door policy" will continue. In principle, every European country has the right to become a member of our organization.
SPIEGEL: Including Russia?
Rasmussen: Why not? Russia is a European country. So yes, in principle.
SPIEGEL: Where do you see common interests with Moscow?
Rasmussen: I just reassured the people I met with there that NATO is not a threat to Russia. There are joint interests everywhere. In general, the fight against terrorism is as important to Moscow as it is to us. The same applies to the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction by some countries. Missiles from Iran, for example, are not only a threat to NATO countries, but could just as easily be pointed at Russia.
SPIEGEL: You believe that the Kremlin feels threatened by Iranian nuclear weapons?
Rasmussen: I believe that this view is beginning to take hold in Moscow.
SPIEGEL: You have been in office for less than five months, but you have already requested a comprehensive new strategic concept for NATO. Has NATO gotten too fat? Is it already getting senile at 60?
Rasmussen: No. But our last strategic concept is now 10 years old. In that time, the number of alliance members has almost doubled, new threats have arisen and missions have become necessary that no one could have imagined at the time.
SPIEGEL: So why does NATO want to, and why should it, deal with everything in the future?
Rasmussen: Think of cyber wars, the threat posed by pirates and the new forms of terror. These are all challenges for which we must find a response. My job is to mediate and develop compromises. Perhaps it isn't such a bad thing to come from a small country, as I do, and to have headed a minority government.
SPIEGEL: Do you enjoy running NATO? In the spring, Turkey tried to obstruct your appointment. You were berated as an "enemy of the Prophet" for your uncompromising stance in the dispute over the Muhammad caricatures.
Rasmussen: The Turks are now among my best friends and supporters within NATO.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Secretary General, thank you for this interview.