Opinion

NATO renewal requires European courage on Afghanistan

NATO reform can’t come fast enough. European leaders must step up and persuade the public of the importance of the Afghan mission and the threat of Al Qaeda.

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In 1953, the shrewd former Supreme Allied NATO Commander and newly-elected president Dwight Eisenhower used the National War College (now the National Defense University) to house his Project Solarium and bring together experts to engage in competitive fresh thinking to determine America’s cold war strategy.

A recent symposium held in Washington on the future of NATO was, in a sense, a modern day Solarium Exercise. Led by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, the current initiative consists of 12 experts from across the Alliance and is tasked with creating a new “Strategic Concept” that will define the future of the Alliance.

While this exercise, which examined a wide range of topics including energy, cyber security, relations with Russia, and other future challenges, is of great value, Defense Secretary Robert Gates rightly warned that if immediate reforms are not enacted, the new Strategic Concept would not be worth the scrap of paper it was written on. 

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Secretary Gates shocked some of the diplomats present when he lambasted the pitiful state of European defense investment. Only 5 of 28 NATO members spend the minimum 2 percent of GDP that NATO recommends; 24 of NATO’s 28 members spend less on defense than they did in the relatively peaceful year of 2000. 

The Strategic Concept’s timing threatens to render it inconsequential. The reform lags well behind the president’s new troop commitment and the need to turn the tide in Afghanistan this year. The collapse of the Dutch government due to political opposition to a continued Dutch military contribution is just the latest example of why NATO must reform immediately.

There was much talk about the importance of Article 5, which states that “an armed attack against one or more [NATO nations] in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all....” Yet the best way to guarantee Article 5’s credibility is to ensure that its first invocation results in success in Afghanistan. If not, Americans would see little value in it and the transatlantic relationship could be irrevocably damaged. 

The night before the symposium, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton similarly criticized the Alliance, saying that military and civilian budgets were divorced from Alliance priorities and that important priorities were under-resourced. Following her speech, she said that the art of leadership was to lead and called on European heads of government to speak out and mobilize their publics in support of an enhanced commitment to Euro-Atlantic security.

In a recent brilliant op-ed, Paddy Ashdown, the renowned British diplomat and former High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, also called on European leaders to remind their publics of the necessity of the Afghan campaign.

The New York Times’ editorial “Dutch Retreat” struck a similar chord in saying that “Europe’s leaders need to tell themselves – and their voters the truth. The war in Afghanistan is not just about America’s security. It, too, is about denying sanctuaries to al Qaeda, which has also carried out deadly terrorist attacks in Europe.”

 The otherwise astute comments of Clinton, Gates, Ashdown, and the editorial board of The New York Times missed the fact that European leaders are not given the tools to lead public opinion.

This is because the entire counter-terrorism mission is treated almost exclusively as a law enforcement issue in Europe, falling under the purview of national justice and interior ministries which are only loosely coordinated by the European Union and completely disconnected form NATO. This inefficient separation means that the leaders of Europe are prevented from comprehending the connection between operations in Afghanistan and the security of European cities. 

This is why most Europeans have no understanding of the greater strategic threat and why they are unaware of the direct danger that al Qaeda poses to Europe and its interests. 

NATO has not done an overall threat assessment of the destabilizing effect extremists are having on Pakistan, India, and Central Asia, and how that instability threatens European security and European interests. This is despite the fact that Al Qaeda and likeminded extremist organizations have used their extensive networks to strike at the heart of major European cities.

Furthermore, these attacks are enabled by the training received in Al Qaeda sanctuaries along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. This threat will only become greater should NATO fail in Afghanistan.

What is to be done? The leaders of Europe must immediately launch an assessment of the ongoing threat to the security of NATO member nations and embark upon a major, wide-scale public information campaign regarding the importance of the Afghan mission at hand.

When I was NATO ambassador in the 1980s, NATO was obliged to do such an assessment of the threat to Europe. It is my sincere hope that Secretary Albright’s group can accelerate NATO’s reform timetable. Give the Alliance leaders the tools to warn of a clear and present danger and it will be the driving force that will allow public support for NATO’s successful 21st century renewal. 

David Abshire, a former ambassador to NATO and co-founder of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.

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