NATO steps up in Afghanistan
All things considered, NATO has done well – so far – in responding to President Obama's request for more troops.
Hillary Rodham Clinton was positively ebullient last week. The secretary of State announced that she was "extremely heartened" by other NATO members' pledge to send about 7,000 troops to Afghanistan. Was her enthusiasm warranted?
Discount some of it as necessary diplomacy to encourage more progress in this eight-year war. Subtract a bit more, because the pledge is not all that it appears. But by and large, grant America's top diplomat her moment of satisfaction. NATO has done well, all things considered.
The 28-member alliance reacted speedily and with relative uniformity to Washington's request for reinforcements. Just days after President Obama announced his decision to send 30,000 more US troops to Afghanistan, NATO produced the commitment number and said that 25 of the 43 foreign countries engaged in that hot spot would increase their deployments. More commitments are expected.
White House arm-twisting seemed less drastic this time. It helped that America's allies were waiting for a decision. As soon as it was made, the president and vice president got on the phone. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen also got to work.
It's important to consider the context of NATO's response. Some European publics are even more skeptical about the war than Americans. European governments are trimming their defense budgets because of the economy.
And these allies, too, have suffered casualties – especially Britain and Canada, which have combat troops in hostile southern Afghanistan. Last year, the son of the Dutch defense chief was killed in a roadside bomb in Uruzgan Province while coming back from patrol.
So, yes, it's "heartening" that America's allies look as if they'll come close to meeting Washington's request for as many as 10,000 additional troops in Afghanistan. But it's also not surprising that the pledges come with caveats, and not just on their use.
For instance, some of the pledged troops are already in Afghanistan – as part of a minisurge for the August presidential election. And here's a big concern: The Dutch and Canadians plan to withdraw their 4,900 combat forces in the next two years. That's half the expected surge of non-American troops. Meanwhile, two of the biggest contributors, the Germans and the French, have yet to agree to extra deployments.
But even the caveats have caveats. Election-surge troops that would otherwise have been leaving, are now staying. The United States is talking with the Dutch and Canadian governments about other uses for their troops. The Germans and French look to be waiting for a Jan. 28 international conference on Afghanistan before deciding on more troops.
Also encouraging, the division and resentment over some countries' restrictions on their troops is lessening. Some of the limits are changing with time and circumstance. France, for instance, used to operate only in the more peaceful Kabul. Since last year, it's allowed its troops to fight under US command.
The new emphasis on training Afghan Army and police also plays to the strengths of America's allies, making their combat restrictions less of an issue. The lines between training and combat are also blurring, as trainers will be accompanying Afghan forces in the field. At the same time, some experts say that fighting left largely to US and British troops will be more focused and easily coordinated.
These point-counterpoint considerations admittedly muddy the assessment of NATO's response. But here's another reason for Ms. Clinton's pleased reaction. NATO governments seem to feel a new urgency about Afghanistan. They understand more clearly that serious threats to their countries originate from the Afghan/Pakistan region. They get that this is also war, and not just peacekeeping. That's a fundamental shift from a few years ago. It's also a realization that NATO's credibility is on the line in the alliance's first major military venture outside Europe.
Crossing this mental Rubicon is necessary for success in Afghanistan. But like Mr. Obama, the leaders of America's allies still need to bring their publics with them.