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New NATO chief has mountains to climb
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The new top man at NATO is a politician renowned for working and playing hard. To relax, Anders Fogh Rasmussen likes nothing better than to cycle up some of the toughest peaks in the French Alps.

In his first day of the office, the secretary general set himself some new mountains to climb.

By time his mandate ends fours years from now, he wants Afghan forces to have assumed "lead responsibility" for security in most of the country. They will have to take over from the 90,000 international troops who have just suffered their bloodiest month in eight years of trying to pacify the country in the face of ferocious Taliban opposition.

Rasmussen insisted that target did not mean that NATO troops would be making a "run for the exit" that would abandon the Afghans to their fate.

"We will support the Afghan people for as long as it takes," the former Danish prime minister insisted in his debut press conference at NATO headquarters.

Rasmussen said his second priority would be building a "true strategic relationship" with Russia whose relations with NATO have yet to recover from the Georgian war a year ago.

He also wants to improve the security situation in Kosovo to the point where NATO can terminate or at least significantly scale down its mission and develop closer ties with Arab nations on NATO's southern flank, a task complicated by his role in the furor that erupted in the Muslim world following the publication of caricatures of the Islamic prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper in 2005.

Rasmussen must also prepare a major overhaul of the strategic concept underpinning the 60-year-old alliance by late 2010.

Afghanistan, however, remains his toughest challenge. Rasmussen suggested NATO would be following the example set by the Americans in Iraq, working province by province to gradually hand over prime responsibility for security to Afghan forces.

For the Afghan National Army and police to be able to take charge of a majority of the country's 34 provinces by the time Rasmussen's mandate ends in 2012, NATO and other international players will have to significantly step up their training schemes for local security forces, he said.

As the first former prime minister to hold the alliance's top job, Rasmussen is expected to pull more weight than his predecessor in persuading other European leaders to boost their contributions to the Afghan mission.

The United States currently provides almost half the 64,000 troops serving with NATO's International Security Assistance Force as well as around 30,000 American military personnel operating independently of the NATO command.

The fact that the bulk of the frontline fighting in the south and east of the country has been left to troops from the United States and a small group of allies, including Britain, Canada, the Netherlands and Denmark, while those from countries such as Germany, Turkey and Italy have remained in the relatively peaceful north and west has long rankled within the alliance.

Rasmussen was adamant that allies on both sides of the Atlantic will do their part in the push to build up Afghan forces. By putting the emphasis on the need for training teams for the Afghans, he aimed to appeal to those nations reticent about sending more combat troops.

He also emphasized the role of NATO in supporting human rights and in particular women's rights in Afghanistan -- an appeal to opinion in countries such as Germany where the public is less convinced by NATO's argument that the mission is crucial for European security by preventing Afghanistan from becoming again " the Grand Central Station of international terrorism."

Rasmussen's replacement of former Dutch foreign minister Jaap de Hoop Scheffer as NATO secretary general is the latest step in a sweeping change of the guard at the alliance.

In recent weeks, U.S. President Barack Obama has appointed Adm. James Stavridis as supreme allied commander operations and placed Gen. Stanley McChrystal at the head of international troops in Afghanistan in an effort to inject new life into the campaign to defeat the insurgents led by the Taliban.

Breaking with tradition, French Gen. Stephane Abrial was confirmed last week as the first non-American to hold the post of supreme commander transformation, in charge of modernizing the alliance military. His appointment underscores France's increased engagement in NATO under President Nicolas Sarkozy.

The first test of the new team will come with the Afghan presidential elections scheduled for Aug. 20. Despite a major push against the Taliban heartlands in southern Afghanistan, NATO officials admit privately that as many as one seventh of the 7,000 polling stations may not be secure against insurgents who have vowed to disrupt voting. Rasmussen insists that making sure the country can hold "credible" elections is crucial for the NATO mission.

On Russia, Rasmussen wants to put profound differences over issues like Georgia on the backburner and focus on areas where the two sides can get along such as counter-terrorism, fighting nuclear proliferation and Afghanistan.

His words offered scant encouragement for pro-Western leaders in Ukraine and Georgia, whose efforts to join NATO are strongly opposed by Moscow. NATO has committed itself to taking in both countries one day. Rasmussen said, however, the question remains " hypothetical" while neither country meets the criteria for membership.

A drive to develop warmer ties with Russia could be derailed by NATO plans to adopt a new strategic concept at a summit expected to be held in Lisbon in November next year.

The Baltic Sstates and other new NATO members in Eastern Europe are worried about Russia's more assertive foreign policy and concerned that the expected focus on new threats ranging from failed states to international terrorism could undermine the alliance's core function for collective territorial defense. In the light of Russia's invasion of Georgia last year, they want commitment to defense planning that strengthens Article 5 of the alliance's founding treaty, stating that an attack on any of the 28 member nations will be considered an attack on all.

Rasmussen announced he had set up a group of experts in diplomacy and defense, headed by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to help produce a draft of the new strategic concept and said he would hold a series of "town hall" meetings to exchange views with the public around NATO nations about the future shape of the alliance.

NATO leaders agreed at the alliance's 60th anniversary summit in April 2009 to overhaul the strategic concept which was last revised in 1999.

Other members of the 12-strong experts' group include Jeroen van der Veer, a former chief executive officer of the oil company Royal Dutch Shell; former British defense secretary Geoff Hoon; and former Polish foreign minister Adam Rotfeld.

Rasmussen also invited the public to offer their advice on the strategic concept over the Internet, saying he wanted the debate to be the "most open and most inclusive" to be held on NATO's future. However, the final document will be shaped by member governments in negotiations running up to the Lisbon summit.

The new concept will aim to create a more flexible alliance able to handle multifaceted dangers, from terrorism and cyber- attacks, to threats to energy security and even environmental disasters. However, Rasmussen said he understood the worries of NATO's new members and insisted there is no contradiction between preparing for new threats while maintaining the all-for-one-one- for-all pledge of mutual defense at alliance's core.

(Xinhua News Agency August 4, 2009)

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