"I Am Cautiously Optimistic About Afghanistan," NATO Commander-in-Chief James Stavridis talks about the future of the Alliance and its operations in the Hindu Kush
This article has been translated by Cubic Translation Service and the content is used by permission from the Stuttgart Nachrichten. The original article, in German, can be viewed here.
The American Admiral praised the Europeans for their engagement in the Hindu Kush. But to remain militarily important, they will have to increase their defense spending. And in his last interview before the NATO Summit begins in Chicago Sunday, Admiral Stavridis promised that the (American) partnership with Europe will remain strong.
Question: Within NATO, there is a gap between the military capabilities of the USA and those of Europe. Are the European armies still any good?
Admiral Stavridis: In Afghanistan we have 90,000 US soldiers and about 45,000 soldiers who do not come from the USA, most of those come from Europe. They do excellent work. The European soldiers there represent the best of their countries. However, the Europeans are reducing their defense spending at an alarming rate. NATO members have agreed to spend two percent of their gross domestic product on the military, however, only a few states actually achieve it. The long term downward trend in defense spending is more troubling to me than the fact that the Europeans are currently slightly missing that goal. My message to our European partners, if they do want to remain militarily relevant, is therefore to increase their defense spending slightly and try to reach the NATO minimum that they themselves have agreed to.
Question: Does not the Libya intervention, which could not have taken place at all without the support of the USA, point out the weakness of the Europeans?
Admiral Stavridis: Seventy-five percent of the operation was carried out by Europeans. The United States provided certain capabilities, like refueling in the air, mission planning, precision ammunitions and reconnaissance. However, the vast majority of the air raids were flown by Europeans and 100% of the weapons embargo and the sea blockade were carried out by Europeans. The Europeans also provide 90% of the peace missions in the Balkans. Thus it is in an alliance, there is a balance among the partners, and in my opinion the Europeans are fulfilling their task within the scope of the NATO operations quite well.
Question: The NATO summit in Chicago is about a closer collaboration in training, armament and specialization. Do you believe, considering the impact of the debt crisis, that the Europeans will finally live up to their promises?
Admiral Stavridis: Yes. I can give you three concrete examples: The ground surveillance system AGS, a new big unmanned aircraft costing eight billion euros, which is to be purchased and used like AWACS aircraft. For aerial patrols in the Baltic States the Baltic states will not have to purchase fighter planes because other countries, including Germany, have taken over the defense of their airspace. Another topic to be discussed in Chicago will also be a closer collaboration on helicopters and strategic air transport. Also, with respect to the European antiballistic missile defense system, different components will come from different states.
Question: Speaking of the European missile defense system: What is European about this system, except perhaps the aging German Patriot Missiles? Up to now, it is all about US warships, US run radar sites and US missile interceptors?
Admiral Stavridis: It is true that the framework is American and initially, the hardware will also largely be provided by the United States. However, the missile defense system is operated by air force personnel from across the entire alliance.
In addition to the land-based Patriot and THAAD systems, the Dutch and Spanish are exploring the integration of their ships in the missile defense system. Also, the Europeans are providing logistics and bases, what they have already been doing for decades.
Question: What is the state of NATO cooperation in Afghanistan? Is not every country involved in this unwinnable conflict just waiting for the end of combat operations in 2014?
Admiral Stavridis: First of all: This is not an unwinnable war. I am cautiously optimistic that we will see a successful transition from coalition-controlled to Afghan led operations by the end of 2014. Fifty percent of the Afghan population already live under Afghan protection today. I just signed papers in which I recommend that 75% of the population should live under Afghan protection. Forty percent of the security operations are already carried out by Afghan security forces. I am very satisfied with the progress we are making.
Question: Isn’t it true that Afghan soldiers’ loyalty is first and foremost to their tribe or that they follow whomever pays better? German officers have compared them to 16th Century mercenaries.
Admiral Stavridis: It is not correct to compare Afghan soldiers with German or American ones. The Afghan security forces are from various different religious backgrounds, from many different regions and they come from different tribes. In my experience, they get along with each other quite well.
Question: How do you assess the current level of protection for the Afghan people given the number of civilian casualties?
Admiral Stavridis: I'll give you a concrete example that, overall, we have made significant progress: Three years ago, we moved into southern Afghanistan, the heartland of the insurgency. At that time there were ten coalition soldiers for every Afghan soldier. Today, in these provinces there are three Afghan soldiers per coalition soldier. The level of violence there has dropped about 40% over the last two years. Hundreds of thousands of children, 40% of whom are girls, are going to school. Sixty percent of the population has access to medical care, commerce is thriving and today one can go through Lashkar Gah without wearing a flak jacket. That is a fundamental change. Certainly, challenges remain: economic, corruption and insurgents, who are operating across the border from Pakistan.
Question: Will there be anti-terror operations and drone attacks in Afghanistan even after 2014?
Admiral Stavridis: The Afghans will also take the lead in these operations. We will accompany them as mentors, i.e. train and assist in the execution of operations. The likelihood of combat operations after 2014 is extremely low. However, I do not want to exclude that possibility. We have not yet determined the policy on that.
Question: America has withdrawn two combat brigades from Germany. What role will US European Command Headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, play in ten years? Will it still exist?
Admiral Stavridis: Of course. Today we have about 100,000 employees of the U.S. Department of Defense in Europe. Of these, we will withdraw about 10,000. This is an appropriate number. The remaining 90,000 are still a large number. More importantly, we are bringing forth new capabilities with the four Aegis-class destroyers coming to Spain, aircraft for special operations stationed in the United Kingdom and we are expanding the missile defense system’s command capabilities here in Ramstein.
Question: What are the dangers for which NATO must prepare today? Some say that Europe is in a lasting state of peace.
Admiral Stavridis: The greatest threats today are transnational, such as terrorism and piracy. And you have to be able to respond to humanitarian disasters. In addition, we must prepare for every kind of missile attack. But mostly I'm worried about cyber-attacks. And we in the alliance are not sufficiently prepared against that threat.
Question: We are witnessing a shift of power from the Atlantic to the Pacific theater. Can you, as NATO Commander, live with that?
Admiral Stavridis: Your question implies that the Pacific would be more important than the Atlantic. I do not think so. We live in a global world. Because of this it is wrong to say one area is important and others are not. If we have learned anything in this world, then, that everything is interconnected. If a country wants to be successful today, it must understand that we live in a global world, and act accordingly. Our Chief of staff Martin Dempsey says the United States sees a strategic challenge in the Pacific, however, it already has a continuing strategic partnership with Europe. He thinks that Europe should stand on our side in the world.
Short Bio on Admiral Stavridis:
Early in his military career, James Stavridis had already faced a difficult decision. Should he fire a missile at the Iranian airplane that was getting dangerously close to his cruiser in the Persian Gulf, or would it be better to wait and see what the pilot was going to do. The young Lieutenant Commander decided not to shoot, and when the airplane left the area voluntarily, he realized that he had made the right decision. Stavridis once told a Christian Science Monitor reporter that this experience he had made in the 1980s had had a lasting effect on him. The experience taught him that following conventional military procedures is not always the best course of action.
In summer 2009, US President Barack Obama appointed Stavridis as Supreme Commander of US Forces Europe and Commander in Chief of NATO. The four-star Admiral is the first Navy officer to hold that post, which is traditionally going to Army Generals. Probably the most widely known of those Generals was Dwight D. Eisenhower, who later became US President. He was followed by, among others, Alexander Haig and Wesley Clerk.
The 57 year old Stavridis is facing two huge challenges simultaneously: he has to implement budget cuts that Washington has decided on concerning the US forces in Europe. As a part of this, he has to manage the withdrawal of approximately 10,000 troops from Europe. As NATO Commander, he is also in charge of withdrawing Alliance troops from Afghanistan. And he will have to give the Alliance, which is, again, fighting over how to divide responsibilities between the Americans and the Europeans, a perspective for the future.
He seems well qualified for his role as a military diplomat in Europe. He was born in 1955 into a military family in West Palm Beach in southern Florida. As a small child, he lived in Greece, where his father, a US Marine, was stationed at the American embassy. His grandfather, an ethnic Greek, grew up in Turkey, Greece’s historical enemy, before immigrating to the US in 1910. The Admiral speaks French, Spanish and some Portuguese. He wrote his dissertation on NATO at Tufts University outside of Boston. He is married and has two daughters.
His career in the Navy was fast. He became the commanding officer of the destroyer USS Barry in 1993. From there, his career in the Pentagon and in afloat commands took off fast. Praised for his strategic thinking, he wrote speeches for the Secretary of the Navy during the Clinton years. He was in command of a carrier group in the Persian Gulf and he was an assistant to George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Rumors from Washington indicate that he will keep his post as NATO Commander until the end of this year, when Marine General John Allen, the current US Commander in Afghanistan, will succeed him.
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