BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Anders Fogh Rasmussen faces many challenges as the next head of NATO but none more daunting than finding a winning strategy to the war in Afghanistan and improving relations with former Cold War foe Russia.
The 56-year-old Dane will be the first former prime minister to lead the military alliance when he succeeds Dutchman Jaap de Hoop Scheffer on Saturday as its secretary-general.
His top priority will be to seek success in the war against Taliban fighters in Afghanistan so that NATO troops can eventually withdraw.
That will be tough because the insurgency against the Western-backed Afghan government has steadily worsened despite a growing international presence dating back to soon after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
"No other secretary-general has come in at a time when NATO is fighting an active, difficult and -- some certainly say -- possibly losing war," said Tomas Valasek of the Center for European Reform think tank.
"Afghanistan will amount to 90 percent of the challenges for the new secretary-general, although, ironically, besides doing the unpopular work of hectoring governments to send more forces and money, his options are somewhat limited."
Rasmussen will be trying to persuade reluctant European allies to commit more troops, money and other resources to Afghanistan at a time when opinion polls show public support for the war waning as casualties grow.
He will also have to look at stepping up efforts by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to train Afghan police and security forces so that NATtroops can eventually leave.
NATO says its International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), whose main role is to help the Afghan government establish security, has 64,500 troops in Afghanistan. This includes 29,950 U.S. troops.
There are around 100,000 foreign troops in all deployed in Afghanistan.
The start of Rasmussen's four-year term coincides with Western concerns over Islamist extremism, the spread of nuclear arms, Russia's determination not to lose influence to NATO in former Soviet territories and the security of energy supplies.
His previous role as a politician could help him and he could also benefit from improved relations between the United States and its European allies since Barack Obama replaced George W. Bush as U.S. president, experts say.
But he starts with a handicap in dealing with the Islamic world, where NATO faces big security challenges, because of a row over his handling of depictions of the Prophet Mohammad in a Danish newspaper in 2006.
Turkey, a mainly Muslim member of the 28-nation alliance, initially opposed his appointment and criticized him for not apologizing over the cartoons, which caused riots in Muslim countries. It questioned whether he could contribute to peace.
Turkey was eventually won over only after Obama intervened at NATO's 60th anniversary summit in April and a consensus was reached on Rasmussen.
Ensuring a modus operandi with Turkey will be important to another of his priorities -- improving cooperation between NATO and the European Union, which has been complicated by a dispute between Ankara and EU member Cyprus. The spat is one of several problems in the way of Turkey's accession to the EU.
Rasmussen, who also backed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, will need strong political skills in dealing with Moscow, with whom links are improving slowly after a freeze in relations over Russia's brief war with NATO-aspirant Georgia a year ago.
Valasek said it would be important to strike the right balance on Russia, recognizing its importance as a strategic partner on global security issues while reassuring former East bloc allies alarmed by Moscow's intervention in Georgia.
"It's a very difficult balance," he said, "one that previous secretary-generals have struggled with."
NATO spokesman James Appathurai said that despite Russian anger at the alliance's eastward expansion, especially the offer of membership to former Soviet republics Georgia and Ukraine, the alliance's door remained open to those who met the criteria.
Karl-Heinz Kamp, of the NATO Defense College in Rome, said Rasmussen's political experience should -- at least initially -- enable him to deal directly with decision-makers such as French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
"As a former prime minister, in his own perception he will have a different level of power and influence," he said.
"He's used to talking directly to heads of government. He knows the Sarkozys and the Merkels of this world. This may mean he will be able to push things through that might have been difficult for his predecessors."
This should also help in drawing up a new strategic mission statement for the alliance to replace one dating back to 1999.
This document, expected to be approved at a NATO summit toward the end of next year, will lay out NATO's main security challenges, including relations with Russia, and address issues such as the balance between defensive and expeditionary forces.