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.

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. 

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. 

While NATO can’t send troops to Pakistan, it must recognize its centrality to the crisis. The 28 members of the alliance and the 14 non-NATO members of the International Security Assistance Force should coordinate their military and civilian aid in a way that boosts Pakistani efforts to combat extremists. This should include training efforts that can occur outside the country in a NATO framework similar to NATO Training Mission–Iraq

4. Failure to understand the greater strategic threat. NATO oversees operations in Afghanistan, while the European Union (EU) loosely coordinates national justice ministries and law enforcement agencies focusing exclusively on domestic counterterrorism efforts. Despite the clear links between terrorist activity in Europe and NATO efforts in Afghanistan, Europe refuses to integrate NATO and EU efforts. NATO has no authority to do an overall threat assessment of the destabilizing effect extremists are having on Pakistan, India, and Central Asia, and how that instability threatens European interests. This failure to understand the overall threat contributes to decreasing European public support for the Afghan mission. 

5. A debilitating adherence to consensus decisionmaking procedures. This laborious process requires unanimity of the alliance’s 28 members. NATO continues to follow this inefficient procedure when it comes to making decisions regarding Afghanistan. General John Craddock, the former supreme allied commander for Europe, has stated that because of this policy it took NATO over a year to adopt a coherent counter-narcotics strategy. This policy tragically undermines NATO’s ability to fight a war. 

6. A reform effort disconnected from the current political reality. Many are complacently looking to the “strategic concept” exercise led by former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to address NATO’s problems. This important restructuring will redefine NATO’s future role and missions. However it won’t report until 2011, which means its time clock is completely disconnected from the fast-ticking political time clock on Afghanistan. Alliance members must understand that the future envisioned by the strategic concept will never come into being if there is a breakdown over Afghanistan. 

European allies must step up

In the United States, there is a growing perception that our European allies are becoming security consumers and not security providers. Waiting for the release of the strategic concept will undermine any immediate reform. Failure in Afghanistan will break the transatlantic alliance, hastening the rise of “the Pacific century” and the inevitable shift of US attention toward Asia

Along with his European counterparts, Obama must call an emergency NATO heads-of-government meeting aimed at addressing these disconnects and building public support for the mission. Mr. Rasmussen appears to be a willing partner in such an endeavor. Only heads of government, not NATO bureaucrats, can mobilize NATO to overcome these debilitating disconnects. 

David M. Abshire was the US ambassador to NATO from 1983-1987 and co-founder of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He is the president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.

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