US Atlantic Council VP Damon Wilson: NATO Needs Unified Political Front in Afghanistan
Exclusive interview with Damon Wilson, Vice President of the US Atlantic Council, for the Bulgaria-US Survey of Novinite.com (Sofia News Agency).
Damon Wilson is Vice President and Director of the International Security Program at the Atlantic Council, focusing on NATO transformation, European defense, emerging global security challenges and transatlantic defense and intelligence cooperation.
Prior to joining the Atlantic Council, he served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for European Affairs at the National Security Council from December 2007 to January 2009. Mr. Wilson played a leading role in developing and coordinating U.S. government efforts to advance a Europe whole, free and at peace and to work with Europe to promote security, prosperity and democracy around the world. He managed interagency policy on NATO, the European Union, Georgia, Ukraine, the Balkans, Eurasian energy security and Turkey, and planned numerous Presidential visits to Europe, including US-EU and NATO Summits.
Previously, Mr. Wilson served at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq as the Executive Secretary and Chief of Staff, where he helped manage the largest U.S. Embassy. Prior to this posting, he worked at the National Security Council as the Director for Central, Eastern and Northern European Affairs from January 2004 to November 2006.
From July 2001 to January 2004, Mr. Wilson served as Deputy Director of the Private Office of the NATO Secretary General.
Prior to serving in Brussels, Mr. Wilson worked in the Department of State's Office of European Security and Political Affairs where he was responsible for cooperation with NATO Allies on missile defense, nuclear policy and preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction. Mr. Wilson also worked on the State Department's "China desk" and at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing as a Presidential Management Fellow. Mr. Wilson began his service at the State Department in 1998 by helping coordinate policy to adapt NATO to modern security challenges and planning for the Alliance's 50th Anniversary Summit in Washington during the Kosovo conflict.
Mr. Wilson completed his master's degree (MPA) at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School for Public and International Affairs.
How do you see Bulgaria's role in the American strategy in Eurasia?
First of all, Bulgaria is a very important ally for the United States in many respects. One is that it is key in the process of ringing the Western Balkans with NATO allies – Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, Albania, Croatia.
This is an incredibly important process in helping to integrate Southeast Europe and the Western Balkans in particular into the European mainstream – both NATO and the European Union. I think Bulgaria's success within the Alliance is a key part of that strategy of integration.
Second, Bulgaria with its shores on the Black Sea provides an important perspective to the Alliance looking eastward underscoring the fact that the Black Sea is an European body of water. Bulgaria's borders on the Black Sea shouldn't be seen as the end of Europe but the other side of the Black Sea should be seen as the end of Europe.
I think Bulgaria's role as an US ally, its participation in NATO and the EU creates the opportunity for establishing this community around the Black Sea making a more compelling argument for Turkey, Ukraine, Georgia to eventually become part of this community as well.
Third, I would say Bulgaria has been a critical ally because it has been willing to participate in NATO military operations and to take on some responsibilities, and just to benefit from the Alliance but also to contribute to it, and the role it has played in both Iraq and Afghanistan has been of a tremendous assistance in the United States. I think this is a quite important partnership.
How would you describe the importance and the role of Task Forces East bringing together US, Bulgarian, and Romanian forces, for US security? What is this qualitatively new kind of formation targeted at?
I was involved in the US government during the negotiations for Task Force East. I think this is an innovative and constructive way to advance the partnership between the United States and Bulgaria in order to provide facilities and access agreements for US forces for training and transit purposes and joint exercises, and I think this is important in terms of the US military that is increasingly expeditionary, increasingly involved in operations around the globe.
This expands the range of options of facilities the US forces have, which is why this partnership is important. At the same time, I think the United States needs to do a better job of using Task Force East, to focus on cooperative and joint exercises with Bulgarian forces but also with more NATO allies.
The Defense Department's release this year of a defense review has underscored the importance of building partnership capacities as the core mission of the US military and its units overseas.
What I would like to see is the US military using Task Force East more routinely, more systematically, to work not just with Bulgarian but also with other NATO allied armed forces to advance the training and cooperation that we do together in Europe. I think the facilities have a potential that we haven't fully tapped yet.
In a hypothetical scenario in which American forces are involved in military action in the region of the Balkans or the Black Sea, how would the joint facilities of Task Force East be used, what would be their role?
I am highly skeptical that there will be a conflict in the Balkans or the Black Sea region that would involve the use of allied military force so I don't see it that way.
I don't think Task Force East has been built in the event of the need to use force in the Balkans or in the region. I just don't think that's where we are headed.
I do think that increasingly we operate on a global footprint, and Southwest Asia is obviously a major focus for the United States and the Alliance, and I think that having just one more option in terms some facilities to provide some operational flexibility.
But it is hard to determine in advance how they will be used or what exactly would be their use except to know that they will be used in accordance with the access agreement with the Bulgarian authorities so there has to be a good level of comfort, which will provide for helping the US and Bulgarian forces to work together.
Do you agree with the view that Turkey is drawing increasingly apart from the United States? Would that mean that the USA will have to focus more closely on its alliance with countries such as Bulgaria and Romania to substitute for Turkey?
I wouldn't frame it that way. I would say, yes, the relationship with Turkey is complex. There are a lot of factors at play inside Turkey that are significant for its orientation internationally.
We certainly have challenges in our relationship to work through in terms of aligning our efforts on Iran, Syria, and other sets of issues. I think the alliance with Turkey remains strong but I don't think it is one you can take for granted.
US-Turkish relationship has been up and down. It is why we need to invest more efforts into it. It is why we need the Turks to listen to us, and we need to listen to them. So we got some work to do to continue to consolidate that partnership.
I wouldn't say that because there have been issues with Turkey we would see the relationship with Bulgaria and Romania as a counterweight to that. Our alliance with Bulgaria and Romania is extraordinarily important in its own right, and it's only going to a safer, stronger partnership if Turkey is part of that equation, which it is, and I expect that it will remain so.
How do you see NATO's new Strategic Concept and the challenges before the Alliance?
I think the Lisbon Summit took place in a time when the Alliance is facing some tough challenges – in Afghanistan, in trying to work out this transition in Afghanistan; the Strategic Concept is facing a test on whether it can really rally the allies around a common vision of purpose for the future of the alliance around missile defense; common policies towards Russia; dealing with new threats such as cyber security; defense challenges in terms of cutting defense budgets – a defense depression if you will, across Europe.
All these issues are on NATO's agenda. I think on many of those there will be progress. On some there will be important progress, on others there will be marginal progress but I see that as the key issues on the agenda.
What will be the role of Bulgaria and the countries in the Balkans in the US/NATO missile shield in Europe?
Southeast Europe is actually quite important to the issue of Alliance missile defense. It is important because it is closest to where the most likely threats emanate from, it is important because of geography in terms of positioning some interceptor missiles as well as radars and supporting structures.
As you know, the issue has been on the table of Romania hosting the Aegis missiles to shore as well as the potential for Turkey to host a radar as part of this architecture. I am not sure if Turkey will say it is ready to do that, I certainly hope so. But it does underscore the fact the role that Southeast Europe plays in the missile defense architecture of the Alliance is actually a quite critical one to make this system work.
The Russian President was a prominent participant in the NATO Lisbon Summit. Some of the key European members of NATO appear to be drawing closer to Russia. How is that affecting the cohesion of the Alliance?
I think what's happening on part of the USA and many of the NATO allies is to try to normalize the NATO-Russia relationship in the wake of the Georgian War. I think we are seeing that happening with President Medvedev's participation in Lisbon.
I think the real question is: is Russia prepared to engage and collaborate with the Alliance in a serious way? There will be an agreement for some support in Afghanistan in terms of training helicopters. That's a good thing. But there also seems to be some resistance and some hesitation on part of the Russians to agree to cooperate more consistently on missile defense with the Alliance.
So we are likely to see a small agreement on missile defense without seeing the Russians agree to make a strong commitment to territorial missile defense. I think it is a little unfortunate that there still some concern in Russia that this is a system designed against it when clearly this is about the threats from Southwest Asia. But I think the Lisbon Summit has been important in forging a unified way for the allies to deal with Russia rather than allow Russia to divide the Alliance as it likes to.
On Turkey's insistence, Iran has not been mentioned as a source of threat to be countered by the missile defense. Do you think this more general wording would affect the missile defense negatively?
I think at the end of the day, no, it won't really impact it because there is no doubt in our minds why we are really building this missile defense system. It is because of the missiles built, tested and launched by Iran. We all know that. And that's not going to change.
If the Turks have some sensitivity diplomatically to naming Iran as particular threat, fine, we can manage that. But the reality is that we all know what we are talking about. It is important to say that this is a military alliance that must face the challenges that it does face.
We would all love for Iran not to present such a missile threat but until Iran ceases the development of nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles or the nature of the regime changes such that it does not pose a threat to Western interest, we do have a problem here.
So the Turks have maintained their position. The fact that NATO won't name Iran won't impact the nature of the system as long as Turkey agrees to host a radar system. But in reality we all know what we are concerned about.
Georgian President Saakashvili was another prominent non-NATO member figure present at the summit in Lisbon. What would you say are Georgia's prospects for joining NATO? Apparently, it's been decoupled from Ukraine now that Yanukovich is power there – but is there a clear NATO future for Georgia shortly?
In the short term I am not optimistic about Georgia joining the Alliance. In the long term I am very optimistic about Georgia joining NATO.
In Lisbon the Allaince is reaffirmed Article 10, the open-door policy of the Pact but in reality the NATO leaders are not enthusiastic about enlargement. I think that will change with time, in part because the Georgians themselves will help change the nature of the debate.
Because when you travel around Georgia – whether you support the government or not – the people of Georgia have a clarity of vision of belonging to the West. It is the strength of that vision that will continue to drive the trajectory of the country.
As we consider the case of Georgia, it will have a more and more compelling case for its membership aspirations because of the work it is going to be doing at home. In the long term I am optimistic about Georgia and the Alliance, in the short term I don't think there is a lot of political will or appetite for going much further on this.
With respect to Afghanistan – what do you think it is that NATO really needs there? Is it more combat troops, more civilian efforts?
NATO does not need more combat troops in Afghanistan today. What NATO needs is a united political front. NATO needs to be able to convince the Afghans, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, the Pakistanis, the Indians, the international community, that it is serious and united in getting the mission done successfully.
That's the challenge that NATO leaders face - to demonstrate political resolve for getting this mission right. So part of what's important is that the message should not be that all of our allies are trying to rush for the exit under political pressure to withdraw but, rather, that they are coming together as a united front on the importance of training the Afghan national authority, the Afghan security forces, to begin the process of transition where they are able to do so, and where the fighting still needs to take place, the Alliance will be in the fight.
I think signaling to the world 2014 as the date of transition to Afghan authorities helped de-emphasize July 2011, the date that President Obama announced as the beginning of withdrawal.
I think the most important think to come of the Alliance is a sense of resolve, commitment, mission, and a sense that all allies will not become withdrawing in large numbers in the near term, but will rather start transfering their forces from combat to training, just as the Canadians have announced in a very significant way. The model that the Europeans used in the Balkans - "in together, out together" - we need to use in Afghanistan.
How does the USA view the common EU defense policy and the potential role of EU forces? This question about fitting together NATO and the EU in terms of defense has been up in the air for more than a decade now.
I strongly support NATO-EU cooperation. I think it is an imperative, particularly in a difficult budget situation and financial crisis. It is actually an imperative that NATO and EU cooperate, not duplicate the same forces.
At the same time, I am quite pessimistic because of the continuing differences between Cyrpus and Turkey that we are not making much progress – and that is the disappointment. I think NATO leaders should elevate this issue and should be able to try to break that impasse.
It is unacceptable and outrageous that NATO and the EU can't really forge the strategic partnership that we should have in today's world. At the same time, I think we focus on working and treaty issues in a practical and technical way but I would still like to see more progress there.
Also, until the EU is able to demonstrate effective leadership, I think we need to be cautious about how some of this plays out. Because for some of this work, you want the European Union to be able to act decisively and effectively, and it still has some work to do post-Lisbon to be able to demonstrate that.
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