Anders Fogh Rasmussen: Nato chief makes promise 'to stay committed' in Libya

100 days after air strikes began, Kim Sengupta meets Anders Fogh Rasmussen in Brussels
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The Independent Online

"We will stay committed as long as it takes to accomplish our mission. This is a very clear signal to Gaddafi that we will continue our operation as long as necessary, you cannot wait us out," says Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Secretary-General of Nato. "I think it is important not to set artificial deadlines but to clearly state that we will stay committed as long as it takes."

Just how long it actually will take is now the subject of intense and impassioned debate. Yesterday was the 100th day of air strikes on Libya in a campaign, which was expected to be short, sharp and victorious. Tomorrow the UN mandate for the operation will have to be extended by another three months.

Muammar Gaddafi, meanwhile, now controls a fraction less of the country than when international military action started, and around 25 per cent more territory than in the aftermath of the uprising on 17 February.

Libya is not the only war facing the West. The timeline for troop withdrawal ordered from Afghanistan by Barack Obama, with David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy taking their cue from Washington, has led to warnings from commanders, including General David Petraeus, that gains may be at risk.

In Afghanistan, say critics, it is the Taliban and their Pakistani backers who have "waited out" Nato. Their stance of "you have the watch, we have the time" appears to be bearing fruit.

Mr Rasmussen, who in the past warned against premature pullout of troops in Afghanistan, insists, "it is a very responsible drawdown based on conditions on the ground ... we also want to move forward in a process where the Afghans take responsibility for their own country."

But speaking at Nato HQ, he stresses that pervasive corruption and malpractice by officials could have a corrosive effect on the handover process. "It's of utmost importance to ensure that the local communities in Afghanistan see clear progress as regards governance to be made that the transition will be a success."

The future of Nato, with particular emphasis on involvement in Libya, was the focus of a withering valedictory speech by Robert Gates, the outgoing US defence secretary last week.

America, he pointed out, was providing 75 per cent of Alliance defence costs. France and Britain, the main instigators of the Libyan adventure, had to turn once again to Washington to provide essential weaponry to carry out operations. "Future US leaders may not consider the return on America's investment worth the cost," he said.

Mr Rasmussen acknowledges that, in the short term, the US had stepped in to provide more ammunition for Libya because of dwindling supplies in Europe. He also said that a discrepancy in investment "may in the long run weaken our alliance".

Nicolas Sarkozy launched a personal attack on the Pentagon chief, suggesting he was unhappy about his retirement,despite US diplomats pointing out that Mr Gates had planned to retire.

Mr Sarkozy has been privately demanding, to the bemusement of French commanders and the amusement of their British counterparts, that victory should be achieved in time for him to make the announcement on Bastille Day, 14 July.

Others who had originally supported the military intervention have been pressing for a halt to the attacks without waiting for victory. The Italian foreign minister Franco Frattini, whose country has been taking part in the campaign, has called for a ceasefire to enable humanitarian relief to get through. Amr Moussa, the head of the Arab League, and a possible future president of Egypt, has expressed deep concern about mounting civilian casualties.

Mr Rasmussen remains adamant. "The Alliance and the Coalition stay unified, and Mr Frattini has confirmed he is in a full agreement with the decision taken by Nato foreign ministers, including himself, in April that we will continue our operation until three conditions are fulfilled – firstly a complete end of attacks on civilians, secondly withdrawal of Gaddafi forces to their bases and thirdly, immediate and unhindered humanitarian access. So we will continue our operation until these conditions are met. I think there is a clear risk of a pause to our operations at this stage... because Gaddafi's regime will take advantage of such a pause and reorganise and reinforce their attacks against civilians."

The main obstacle to a ceasefire is the position of the rebel leadership – whose forces have failed to take advantage of paths cleared for them by Nato – that no talks will take place until Gaddafi and his family go.

The Secretary-General said: "Gaddafi must go. The international community has called on him to leave power. I have taken note of the fact that the opposition represented in the Interim Transitional Council [the rebel administration] won't engage with the current regime be it Gaddafi, or be it his family. It's up to Libyan people to shape the future of their own country."

In his previous post, as Danish prime minister, Mr Rasmussen backed the Iraq invasion, maintaining: "Iraq has WMDs... there is no doubt in my mind."

Much of the false information about Iraq's supposed WMDs came from opposition groups. Was there a danger that the West was now unquestioningly accepting the legitimacy and the veracity of the Libyan opposition groups? "There are many contacts with the opposition and we have got a pretty clear picture of the composition of the opposition," Mr Rasmussen replied.

"But the bottom line is that the Interim National Council [sic] has a roadmap for transition to democracy," he added.

The CV

August 2009 Becomes Nato Secretary-General

2001-2009 Prime Minister of Denmark as leader of the centre-right Venstre, or Liberal, Party

1998-2009 Chairman of Venstre

1993-1998 Vice-chairman of the Danish parliament's Economic and Political Affairs Committee

1987-1992 Minister for taxation

1978 Elected as an MP in the Danish parliament in the year he graduates from university

1953 Born in Ginnerup, in Jutland, Denmark