‘NATO has an open-door policy’ towards countries wanting to become members

In a wide-ranging interview during his visit to Athens last week, General Raymond Henault, chairman of the NATO Military Committee, discussed the chances of Cyprus becoming a member of the Alliance, the restructuring of NATO forces in Kosovo and the role Greece could play in the Alliance in the 21st century. Last June, General Henault was elected chairman of NATO’s top military wing, becoming the second Canadian to assume this important post in the Alliance’s history. Before that, since June 2001, he was head of the Canadian Joint Chiefs of Staff, during which time his country’s forces participated in more operations than at any other during peace time. Their some 17,000 troops have since taken part in international, mainly NATO, missions under a UN mandate. During his term at the head of his country’s armed forces, Henault led their transformation with a number of innovative decisions, including allowing all Canadian officers to speak to the press without first seeking permission, a decision that led to a considerable improvement in relations between the forces and the public. As a Canadian, is it strange for you to be in this position, because Canada is in the middle, between the US and Europe? I think what is important about this is that it is an expression of the will of the chiefs of staff (of NATO’s member states), because mine is an elected position by majority vote. It is a question of their confidence in the North American viewpoint, and also an expression of their confidence in our ability to reinforce and promote the trans-Atlantic link and to bridge this gap that the Atlantic creates for us. What will be the main priorities, the main goals of your term on the Military Committee? The first objective is, of course, to continue supporting and promoting Alliance operations, which are now on four different continents and cover a wide range of operations. Almost all of our missions have a UN mandate or a Security Council resolution prior to the operation – the only exception to the rule that I can recall in the recent past is the Kosovo campaign. Another central goal is improving the Alliance’s military capabilities across the spectrum of operations, particularly in a number of strategic sectors, such as air and maritime transport, better administration and control systems and so on… expanding our reach to partnership countries. Also of great importance is NATO’s cooperation with other countries, such as Russia, Ukraine or the countries in the Mediterranean Dialogue. In many ways also, the Alliance is also working with countries such as Australia or Japan; all of these are top priorities. There is, of course, a very wide gap between the US’s military capabilities and those of the other member states. That is what transformation is all about as well, seeking to narrow this gap, to ensure that we can all operate together wherever we go. I consider it very important to continue promoting this trans-Atlantic link. Cyprus is a member of the EU but not of NATO. Many difficulties have emerged in the relations between the two organizations arising from different interpretations of the agreement that governs those relations. Given also Cyprus’s strategic importance in the eastern Mediterranean, wouldn’t it be useful for the Alliance to have it as a member? NATO has a very open policy for countries that want to work with it and Cyprus could be one of those if it decided to do that. However, I am not aware at this time that Cyprus is seeking to become a member of the Alliance. The Alliance has an open-door policy, but there are a number of criteria which any nation that wants to be a part of the Alliance must accommodate. Frankly, it is a political issue, so I can’t really speculate, but the door is open and that’s what’s important. You referred to Kosovo. Aren’t you concerned at what happened there? Is NATO ready to face the worst in Kosovo if necessary? I consider Kosovo to have been a successful mission. The economy is starting to go much better. I was just there with the military representatives from Brussels – my first time since about 2002 or 2003 – and I saw an improvement in sectors such as road construction, airport operation. The question, of course, is how the talks (on Kosovo’s status) will develop. I am optimistic. However, the Alliance will be there for some time so that we maintain the momentum. We will do whatever is needed to maintain stability in Kosovo. At the moment, however, NATO is planning to reorganize its forces in Kosovo. Does that mean there will be a reduction. No it doesn’t. What we are doing is restructuring our forces in Kosovo. There is no reduction in the size of forces, especially in the maneuver forces. The transition to this task-force structure allows us more flexibility. It will take about a year to complete the transition. The number of units will remain the same but will allow for people to move much more freely around Kosovo itself. From that perspective, it will be another step in the right direction of Kosovo’s status whatever that status will be. How do you rate the effectiveness of the NATO mission In Afghanistan? Afghanistan is a mission where NATO has achieved a fair amount of success, so we are very proud of the fact that the Alliance has been able to provide a relatively stable and secure environment (in Kabul); there are always risks in this kind of operation. We have helped them start down the path of renewal. We were there for the parliamentary and presidential elections, all of which have come off successfully. Naturally, it is important for the Alliance to continue supporting the government of Afghanistan to extend its footprint outside of Kabul into the north and south, and very important for the overall success of this operation for the Alliance to continue to extend this reach with the government. As you know, we have an expanded operation now which started in the northern region of Afghanistan with provincial reconstruction teams. We have now expanded down into the west, and are about to embark on an expansion yet again of the NATO footprint into the south, centered on Kandahar. Outside the NATO framework, some of its member states’ forces are in action in other parts of the country. Will try to unify the two missions? In Kabul, NATO is acting on a mandate from the UN for the security of the region and naturally for the security of the members of the mission. The other forces are waging counter-terrorism operations. But with expansion in Afghanistan, it becomes important that these two missions operate in a harmonized way so there has to be synergy between the two. So we are anticipating we will have one commander by the time we adopt this new posture, which will be some time next summer. It’s not an integration of the two missions, but a harmonization.