Nato commander Philip Breedlove on post-Afghan future

General Breedlove Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Gen Breedlove is in charge of the Nato mission to provide Afghan troops with support after 2014

As Nato's decade-long mission in Afghanistan begins to wind down, one of the alliance's senior military leaders discusses what the future holds.

The next 18 months will be a period of significant change for Nato. The alliance's combat troops and their equipment will be gradually withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. But after that the Afghans will not be entirely on their own.

A new Nato mission - dubbed "Resolute Support" - will begin to provide the Afghan armed forces with critical advice and support.

The man who has to watch over this crucial and potentially difficult period of transition is the alliance's new supreme allied commander in Europe (Saceur), General Philip Breedlove.

His job is to not only to keep an eye on the transition process but to begin to think about a Nato beyond the Afghan War.

What sorts of missions should it be training for? What challenges lie ahead?

I met Gen Breedlove, just a few weeks into his new job, at the Nato headquarters at Northwood just outside London.

'Fighting, not wilting'

So how was the transition in Afghanistan going?

Afghan forces, he insisted, were stepping up to the mark.

"They are standing, fighting not wilting," he told me. "They are fighting well and recovering from those engagements."

There were still, as he put it, "some areas where we need to work on their abilities to sustain themselves in the fight - we have until the end of 2014 to do that".

I pushed him, though, on the increasing Afghan Army casualties.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Nato's combat troops are scheduled to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014

Wasn't this a problem for morale, especially problems with casualty evacuation, or casevac as it's known.

Again his recipe was that more work was required, though he acknowledged that the Afghans' own capabilities in this area would not be at the level that used to be provided by Nato helicopters and medical teams.

Gen Breedlove is also beginning to think about Nato's role after 2014.

Talks had begun with Afghan leaders, he told me, but "right now it is primarily about focussing on our own internal planning, shaping the force, understanding the mission and reaching consensus on that mission".

Surely, I asked, once the combat phase for Nato is over there is a strong danger that alliance nations will lose interest in Afghanistan, especially if there is still a significant risk of casualties to trainers and other support troops.

The general insisted this was not going to happen.

"We have communicated directly - both the Nato secretary general and myself to President Karzai - we will be there, we are not abandoning the Afghan people and this mission - Resolute Support - will go forward and it will go forward well," he said.

Of course there are many other problems on Saceur's radar, not least the potential spill-over of the Syrian crisis into alliance territory in Turkey.

"What is happening in Turkey right now is a great demonstration of what Nato is all about. Nato has come to the aid of an ally," he told me.

Six batteries of Patriot missiles from three countries - the US, Germany and the Netherlands - are operational there on the ground.

'Turkey is focus'

What about a potential Nato-led "no fly" operation, I asked. How quickly could it be up and running?

Gen Breedlove would not be drawn.

"Right now there is no intention for Nato to be involved inside Syria in a kinetic way," he said. "I can only opine that if there were to be a Syria operation it would be a non-Nato mission."

"The focus now," he insisted, "is on defence of Turkey."

But with combat operations in Afghanistan - at least for Nato - drawing down, Gen Breedlove is also inevitably thinking about the alliance's wider military role post-Afghanistan.

I put it to him that almost ever since the end of the Cold War there has been some kind of military mission - starting in the Balkans - that gave Nato a sense of military purpose.

"Clearly we will see a change in our mission in Afghanistan," he cautioned, but "the mission is not over".

But he is thinking a great deal about going forward, he told me.

"Right now we have a Nato that is at the pinnacle of its ability to operate together - our tactics, techniques and procedures are better than they have ever been. We work cohesively now in a team way that was never known in Nato."

How do we not lose that?

"It will be a central focus of mine to capture this excellence and to maintain it," he explained.

"We are going from deployed to ready and that will be my focus."

But, I asked, is that habit of joint action - however successful - sufficient to sustain the alliance in the years ahead?

There are clearly differing views as to the degree of success that Nato has had in Afghanistan. It has certainly been an unpopular war in many alliance countries.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Afghan troops will take the lead for security throughout the country

Gen Breedlove not surprisingly preferred to stress the positives.

He accepted that for the future there were differing views as to the direction that Nato should go, a tension between some countries who stress the alliance's role well beyond its own boundaries, and others who want it to return to its core mission - the so-called Article V task - of the direct defence of Nato territory.

"I think the beauty of Nato all along," Gen Breedlove said, "has been the flavour of 28 nations - the richness of Nato is this discussion that countries bring to the table."

But he accepted that after years of counter-insurgency warfare, Nato forces would need to refresh some of their skills in the sort of high-end combat with heavier forces that is key to the Alliance's defensive mission.

But equally Gen Breedlove stressed that Nato would have to remain ready to carry out a wide variety of missions.

New threats were emerging, and he pointed to North Africa and the rise of al-Qaeda there as one troubling development that Nato was watching closely.

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