NORFOLK, Va., Sept. 9, 2009 – Despite the challenges it faces there, NATO will stay the course during its tough fight against Taliban and other extremists in Afghanistan, the alliance’s top leader said here today.

“Let no one think that a run for the exits is an option; it is not,” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters aboard the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, berthed at Naval Station Norfolk, after he’d participated in a ceremony transferring command of Allied Command Transformation from U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis to Gen. Stephane Abrial of France’s air force.

“My view is very clear,” Rasmussen said. “What we are doing now is very difficult, is very costly. But, if we were to walk away, we would pay a much higher cost — and soon.”

A military withdrawal from Afghanistan would result in terrorist attacks originating from Afghanistan, Rasmussen said, as well as “profound instability in Pakistan and in Central Asia.” Extremists worldwide would become “emboldened” if NATO disengaged from Afghanistan, he added.

“This is simply not a future we can allow to happen,” Rasmussen said.

Rasmussen acknowledged to reporters that more needs to be done in Afghanistan – especially more progress in training higher numbers of Afghan soldiers and police. More trainers, he said, are required to achieve that goal.

“We need to further develop the capacity of the Afghan security forces,” Rasmussen said, “so that the Afghans can take responsibility themselves, gradually, province by province.”

What’s also needed, Rasmussen said, is “a clear step towards transition” to Afghan leadership in the realms of security, health, education, development and governance.

“Within NATO, that means investing much more heavily in training and developing the Afghan security forces,” Rasmussen said.

The road to success in Afghanistan entails achieving more progress, Rasmussen said, and demonstrating that progress through “clear, visible transition” to Afghan authorities, Rasmussen said. It’s also essential that the Afghan government deliver better services to its citizens, he added.

The bottom line, Rasmussen said, is “we need to show the Afghan people and the citizens of troop-contributing nations that we are getting somewhere.”

Reducing civilian casualties is Afghanistan is part of the strategy to achieve success there, the secretary general told reporters. “I know that our troops on the ground do their utmost to reduce the number of civilian casualties,” he said, noting that over the last year, civilian casualties in Afghanistan have been reduced by around 95 percent.

“But what we cannot and will not do is waver,” Rasmussen said. “Success in our efforts is essential to Afghan security, to regional security and our security — and we will get there.”

Rasmussen cited the change-of-command ceremony as a “significant milestone” for NATO. Abrial became ACT’s first nontemporary European commander. Before 2003, ACT was known as Allied Command Atlantic, which was established in 1952. Most of ACA’s commanders have been Americans.

“I am truly honored by the command with which I have been entrusted,” Abrial said after the ceremony. “I am eager to serve alongside the dedicated men and women in NATO’s most diverse command serving here in Norfolk and throughout Europe.”

NATO established Allied Command Transformation in 2003. It works with U.S. Joint Forces Command to identify, advocate and facilitate continuous improvement of NATO capabilities to maintain the alliance’s effectiveness in the 21st century.

Earlier this year, France decided to rejoin NATO’s military command. Then-French President Charles de Gaulle had pulled France out of NATO’s military command in 1966. France has hundreds of troops deployed in Afghanistan in support of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force there.

“As NATO says, eventually you need France’s voice in the command structure if their troops are going to be in every operation,” Mattis told reporters after the change-of-command ceremony.

The Marine four-star general, who received NATO’s Meritorious Service Medal at the ceremony, remains the chief of U.S. Joint Forces Command, also based here. Mattis had served as Supreme Allied Commander for Transformation for about two years.

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