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Cold war won, can NATO fight terror?

The alliance begins a partnership with Russia, as it searches for a new role.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 28, 2002


As the North Atlantic Treaty Organization finally digests its former arch enemy, Moscow, at Tuesday's first meeting of the NATO-Russia council, a specter stalks the feast.

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Does the alliance that has guarded the Western world's safety for the past half century still have a military job to do, now that the cold war is over? Can it muster the political will (and cash) to join the US in the "war on terrorism" – against Iraq or others that may threaten to use weapons of mass destruction?

With its old work done, what is NATO for?

"We have the best alliance in the world to deal with the least likely threat, and we don't have an alliance to deal with the most likely threat," says Ron Asmus, deputy assistant secre- tary of State under the Clinton administration.

President Bush, on a weeklong European tour that ends today in Rome, has urged Washington's NATO partners to re-tool the alliance for new missions further afield. But the organization's future is clouded by twin doubts.

While US planners fear European governments won't spend the money to make their armies effective allies in battle, European leaders wonder how deep Washington's commitment is to NATO, in light of its decision to run the war in Afghanistan itself.

US officials insist that they still see NATO as the cornerstone of US-European relations and of Western security. One hundred thousand US troops are stationed in Europe, they point out, and Washington has been the driving force behind NATO's enlargement to include former Warsaw Pact countries in Central Europe. The alliance "remains a fundamental pillar of our foreign and defense policy," Under secretary of State Marc Grossman told a Senate committee earlier this month.

In the Pentagon, however, some senior officials appear to harbor doubts about this. They recall laborious NATO meetings during the Kosovo war to decide on strategy and to choose bombing targets, which led to complaints about the difficulty of waging war by committee.

Those voices prevailed when it came to fighting the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Although NATO invoked Article V of its founding treaty – calling an attack on one member an attack on all – Washington chose to wage war on its own terms. US military planners have used troops from 14 NATO allies in Afghanistan, but they have operated under US command, not as a NATO force.

"NATO should be the place where the Americans and Europeans coordinate their security and defense policy, but that is not what the Americans have been doing," complains François Heisbourg, head of the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research. "They have been coordinating military operations in Afghanistan from (US Central Command HQ in) Tampa. NATO has been sidelined."

NATO leaders hope that the Afghanistan war is not a blueprint for the future. "The fact that NATO has not been in the lead in Afghanistan should not be taken to mean it will not lead in other military operations in the future" said NATO Secretary General George Robinson last month.

Officials say NATO is readying itself to fight terrorism and those who might use weapons of mass destruction: NATO foreign ministers agreed at their recent Reykjavik summit that the alliance "must be able to field forces that can move quickly to wherever they are needed, sustain operations over distance and time, and achieve their objectives."

Some European observers wonder whether NATO is the right vehicle for the fight against terrorism, which they see as a police problem more than a military one. "The notion that NATO will be the place where the security services and police trade information and coordinate policy is not serious," says Mr. Heisbourg.