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.