The long and short of NATO

Tension among alliance members compounds the challenge of the task at hand (Afghanistan) and a larger universe of threats for which NATO must prepare -- such as a nuclear Iran.

This has not been a good week for the NATO alliance. The Dutch government fell over the issue of its NATO troops in Afghanistan, while at least 21 Afghan civilians were killed by NATO pilots who mistook them for insurgents. The upshot: the Dutch plan to pull out in August; the NATO commander in Afghanistan, US Gen. Stanley McChrystal, had to apologize on national television to the Afghans and directly to President Hamid Karzai

But this has also been a good month for NATO. 

The transatlantic alliance, along with Afghan troops, is making progress in its assault on the Taliban stronghold of Marjah. Key Taliban leaders in Pakistan have been arrested. The Taliban are on the defensive. 

The snapshot vs. the longer-running video is worth remembering as the 28-member military grouping of democratic nations struggles to hold together in the ninth year of war in Afghanistan – and much longer into the future: NATO is about to write its “strategic concept,” a periodic rethink that defines its reason for being.

Tension among alliance members compounds the challenge of the task at hand (Afghanistan) and a larger universe of threats for which NATO must prepare – from cyber security attacks to the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran

Yet when it comes to alliance tension, it has ever been thus. The Soviet Union certainly focused the attention of member states during the cold war, which NATO “won.” But even that singular threat did not prevent significant alliance disputes, for instance, over the deployment of short-range nuclear missiles in Europe in the 1980s. And it was only two years ago that French President Nicolas Sarkozy decided his country should rejoin NATO’s military command, which Paris quit in 1966.

Today’s concern about the Dutch pullout is whether other governments will also come to view Afghanistan as political suicide at home. Canada plans to pull its troops out next year. The public in such countries as Germany and France favor withdrawal as well. A sense seems to be building among the population of some countries that they’ve done their bit. 

Many Europeans haven’t been won over by the argument that Afghanistan is directly tied to their security (despite terrorist bombings in Madrid and London by jihadists). Neither do they seem to be moved by the core alliance value of solidarity – that an attack against one member is an attack against all. For the first time in its history, NATO invoked just such a principle. But that was immediately after the 9/11 attack on the US, and to some in Europe, that feels like yesteryear.

And yet, widen the lens to take in the fuller view. It’s a significant sign of evolution that an alliance originally built on territorial defense has come to understand that defense of members’ freedom and democracy involves areas beyond its borders.

Sixty percent of the foreign forces in Afghanistan are American, yes, but 40 percent come from other countries, including NATO members – and those countries have also taken 40 percent of the casualties, according to NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. And while the nonAmerican members haven’t yet met the US target of adding 10,000 troops, the contributions do come close.

It’s not easy to get 28 members to reach consensus. And it won’t be easy to get NATO to agree on future threats. But the alliance has started to adjust, if haltingly, to a post cold-war era. It must continue the evolution.

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