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Opinion

In Afghanistan, NATO is fighting for its life

What has happened to the great alliance of democracies that won the cold war? NATO has yet to fully mobilize and exhibits no sense of urgency concerning the extremist threat in Afghanistan.

By David M. Abshire / December 17, 2009



Washington

Many European leaders praised President Obama’s plan to send 30,000 American troops to Afghanistan to turn the tide against the Taliban insurgency. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has announced that 25 countries appear ready to pledge around 7,000 new troops. 

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Despite these moderate increases, most European leaders have not begun to tap the impressive resource base of the NATO alliance, which includes over 2 million non-US troops. Of the 28 countries in NATO, only the US, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Poland, Romania, and the Netherlands provide sizable forces that are not handicapped by restrictive “combat caveats,” which prevent forces from participating in the full range of counterinsurgency operations. Furthermore, Canada and the Netherlands have not reversed their plans to withdraw by 2011.

No wonder that, when asked recently if NATO was not working well in Afghanistan, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner responded “It’s not working at all.” 

What has happened to the great alliance of democracies that won the cold war? NATO has yet to fully mobilize and exhibits no sense of urgency concerning the extremist threat. 

NATO is fighting for its life – it had better start acting like it. 

In his speech to the cadets at West Point (my alma mater, a constituency already fully committed to the Afghan campaign), the president presented to the American people the reasons for reinforcing the Afghan mission. 

During his “Lincolnesque” Nobel Prize acceptance speech last week, Mr. Obama recognized the important legacy of nonviolence. However, he also brilliantly acknowledged the role of “just war” in ensuring global peace, thereby offering a strong defense of NATO’s participation in Afghanistan to the European public. 

Neither speech provided a needed explicit call for our NATO allies to do more.

Six stumbling blocks

Additional resources are desperately needed to ensure both success in Afghanistan as well as the alliance’s future credibility, yet NATO’s efforts in Afghanistan are crippled by six debilitating disconnects between NATO’s goals and its methods:

1. Caveats. New reinforcements must be freed of any caveats that prevent them from engaging in combat. European leaders and parliamentarians must be convinced of the need to remove these caveats.

2. Inadequate training and investment in Afghan security forces. NATO members must send desperately needed police and military training teams. This is a necessary element of any sustainable transition strategy.  

3. The absence of a regional focus. NATO has focused almost exclusively on Afghanistan even though the Taliban and Al Qaeda leadership are located in Pakistan, in close proximity to nuclear weapons. 

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