The Cable

NATO chief: Please don’t burn the Quran in Florida

A Florida group's plan to burn copies of the Quran on Sept. 11 could hurt the international mission in Afghanistan and put allied troops at risk, the head of NATO said Tuesday.

"I strongly condemn that. I think it's a disrespectful action and in general I really urge people to respect other people's faith and behave respectfully. I think such actions are in strong contradiction with all the values we stand for and fight for," said NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. "Of course, there is a risk that it may also have a negative impact on the security for our troops."

Rasmussen's comments came just one day after Afghanistan commander Gen. David Petraeus issued a statement criticizing the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida, which plans to burn copies of Islam's holy book for 10 reasons they explain on their website.

"It could endanger troops and it could endanger the overall effort in Afghanistan," Petraeus said.

Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, the head of the NATO training mission in Afghanistan, told CNN that the issue was already a hot topic of discussion among Afghans and said, "We very much feel that this can jeopardize the safety of our men and women that are serving over here in the country."

The Associated Press reported that hundreds of Muslims in Kabul have already rioted in protest of the planned Koran burning.

Rasmussen is in Washington to meet with President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the White House Tuesday afternoon. Topping the agenda are metrics for assessing progress in Afghanistan, as well as preparations for the upcoming NATO summit in Lisbon in November.

In a wide-ranging discussion with reporters, Rasmussen expressed guarded optimism about the progress of the war in Afghanistan, where about 40,000 NATO troops are fighting alongside American soldiers and marines.

Rasmussen said he agreed with President Obama's decision to begin the transition of authority over security matters from allied forces to the Afghan government, including troop withdrawals, in July 2011. He said the pace of withdrawals were to be determined by conditions on the ground, and that the goal was to complete the transition by the end of 2014.

"I can tell you when it will begin, I can tell you when it would be completed, but I can't tell you exactly what will be the time differences between these two points," he said about the transition, predicting an announcement regarding the beginning of the transition at the Lisbon conference.

He acknowledged that there is an ongoing process to identify which provinces to transition to Afghan control first, and what metrics to use in judging progress on goals. He said it was premature, however, to say which provinces might be ready first or what specific metrics might be used.

"We will not leave until we have finished our job... A handover doesn't mean an exit," he said. NATO forces will have an ongoing role, which will include the presence of a base in Kabul that will allow them to continue to provide support at some level in perpetuity, he said.

On the ever-puzzling issue about what to do regarding Afghan government corruption, Rasmussen said that the international community must keep up political pressure on Afghan President Hamid Karzai but said that he believes Karzai is sincere about cooperating with the NATO-led coalition on this issue.

"He realizes that it is a prerequisite for gaining the trust of his own people that he and his government fight corruption determinedly," he said. "I really do believe he will do what it takes."

Rasmussen said the Lisbon conference will address a host of issues, including tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, NATO cooperation on missile defense, and cyber warfare. He also endorsed a NATO missile defense shield and extended an offer to Russia to participate. (Russia has shown little enthusiasm for missile-defense cooperation.)

On nuclear weapons, Rasmussen said that while he shared Obama's goal of a world free of nuclear weapons, for the time being nukes will remain in Europe as part of NATO's posture. He said the conference will not come out with specific numbers for the reductions of nuclear weapons based in Europe.

"We will not give up nuclear capabilities as a central part of our deterrence policy," he said.

The Cable

Special Briefing Skipper: George Mitchell on the peace talks

Your humble Cable guy is on vacation, but sending along this briefing skipper, in which we scour the transcript of the State Department's daily presser so you don't have to. These are the highlights of Thursday's briefing by Special Envoy George Mitchell:

  • Mitchell came out to brief the press after the first full round of talks had ended. The first meeting involved the full U.S., Israeli, and Palestinian delegations and took place on the 8th floor of the State Department. After that, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and Mitchell continued in Clinton's personal office (pictured above). When that ended, Netanyahu and Abbas had a one-on-one talk. "In the trilateral meeting, there was a long and productive discussion on a range of issues," Mitchell said. "President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu expressed their intent to approach these negotiations in good faith and with a seriousness of purpose."
  • Don't expect detailed readouts of the talks, Mitchell warned. "[Netanyahu and Abbas] also agreed that for these negotiations to succeed, they must be kept private and treated with the utmost sensitivity. So what I and they are able to disclose to you today and in the future will be limited," he said. But Mitchell did reveal that Netanyahu and Abbas reaffirmed their commitment to "a viable state of Palestine alongside a secure state of Israel." They also agreed these negotiations can be completed within one year. They did discuss settlements, but not in detail.
  • The two sides agreed the next step is to work out a framework agreement, the purpose of which is "to establish the fundamental compromises necessary to enable them to flesh out and complete a comprehensive treaty." So what is a framework agreement exactly? "A framework agreement is not an interim agreement. It's more detailed than a declaration of principles, but is less than a full-fledged treaty," Mitchell said.
  • The next meeting will be Sept 14 and 15 in the region and they will try to meet every two weeks after that. The planning for that meeting, which includes the U.S., is underway. Clinton and Mitchell will both go to the region to attend. As for exactly what will be discussed when, Mitchell isn't saying. "You cannot separate process from substance in these discussions. There is an interaction that affects both, and we've made it clear that these issues are to be determined by the parties."
  • Mitchell described the relationship between Netanyahu and Abbas at the meeting as "cordial." He pointed out that the two leaders have know each other for a long time. "They are not in any way strangers, politically or personally. And I felt that it was a very constructive and positive mood, both in terms of their personal interaction and in terms of the nature of the discussion that occurred," Mitchell said.
  • The Iranian government's actions, which Netanyahu mentioned Thursday, do have an influence on the peace negotiations, Mitchell said, arguing that those actions provide another clear reason for everybody in the region to make peace. "Obviously one of the factors that makes that desirable -- in my judgment, necessary for all of these parties -- is in part the actions and policies that have been and are being taken by the government of Iran," Mitchell said. "Yes, so it is a factor."
  • Mitchell didn't want to compare President Obama's effort to organize peace talks with past administrations, but he did praise Obama for making the issue a priority at the very beginning of his administration. "There have been many very well-written books on the history of the past 20 years. I think I've read most of them. And it's very clear that at least in a couple of instances, time ran out," he said.
    "Well, this president, I believe, will succeed. But as he said yesterday, neither success nor failure is predetermined or guaranteed. But it isn't going to be because time ran out at the end."
  • Mitchell wasn't overly confident about the result of the new talks, but said he personally believed that these negotiations can produce a final agreement that will solve the conflict once and for all." There has to be a sincerity and a seriousness of purpose combined with a realistic appraisal and understanding of the difficulties, but a determination to overcome them. I believe that exists. I believe these two leaders, President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu, are committed to doing what it takes to achieve the right result."

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