Afghanistan Clouds NATO Summit

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Is NATO fighting the right way in Afghanistan? Many are beginning to wonder. NATO says its two-week offense in September, Operation Medusa, drove insurgents out of the Taliban strongholds of Panjwai and Zhari districts in Kandahar province. Daan Everts, NATO's senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, calls it a "critical turning point." But that operation also killed at least a dozen civilians. "If NATO cannot bring our people security and a peaceful life, then it has failed," says Noorolhaq Olomi, an M.P. from Kandahar and chairman of the parliament's defense committee. "There is no reconstruction, just destruction." Despite efforts to help reconstruction work around the country, a military force like NATO doesn't have the resources or expertise to make Afghanistan's huge deficits—poverty, pervasive corruption, poor education, a thriving drug trade—quickly disappear. Yet no one else is providing such help at the scale required.

Would ad hoc military alliances work better than NATO? NATO has been a rather unloved son in recent years. "We've had an unholy coalition of American and French unilateralists undercutting NATO for different reasons," says Asmus. Outgoing U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld—who won't be in Riga—didn't want to be forced to forge unanimity around a table, so he ignored the alliance, even after it speedily invoked its "common defense" clause, for the first time in its history, after the Sept. 11 attacks against the U.S. France, for its part, will always see NATO as a U.S. appendage. And while Paris is willing to commit troops to dangerous places, as it's doing now in Afghanistan, Kosovo and Lebanon, its officials are a long way from embracing NATO. But no one is ready to dump the alliance. Its permanent structures, however unwieldy, are still the best way to muster, coordinate and confer legitimacy on international troops.

What's NATO's brief? "Our agenda with Europe is now a global agenda, and it tends to be about the rest of the world, about what we can do as partners in the Middle East, in South and East Asia, in Africa and in Latin America," said U.S. Under Secretary of State R. Nicholas Burns last week. Washington wants to enhance the alliance's relations with like-minded allies such as Japan, South Korea and Australia, arguing that the West is as much an idea as a geographical concept. But don't expect to see that idea reflected in the final Riga communiqué: a global NATO makes many allies, most notably France, uneasy. "We think there are enough problems with NATO in Afghanistan and Kosovo; we don't need to get involved in the Taiwan Strait," says a French Defense Ministry official. Many European governments, France in particular, worry that "expanding NATO into an alliance of democracies [could be] interpreted as 'the West against the rest,'" says Daniel Keohane, a security expert at the Centre for European Reform in London. The summit will endorse a mechanism for coordinating with out-of-area allies, but not the formal ties Washington has been hoping for.

Do NATO and the E.U. Know what each other is supposed to do? Not entirely, but the subject isn't nearly as fraught as it was five years ago, when an assertive European Union seemed on track to create military command structures that would compete with NATO's. While the E.U. is now independently running military operations in Bosnia, Macedonia and Congo and doing delicate work in East Timor and Gaza, that's no longer neuralgic for NATO. "Frankly, we want more NATO and more E.U.," says a senior U.S. official. But the idea of a robust E.U. military arm stumbles on the lack of an E.U. constitution, and falls on the matter of defense budgets: only six of NATO's 24 European members meet its benchmark of spending 2% of GNP on defense, and U.S. spending, at 3.7%, far eclipses the European average. Europe can dream of independence from U.S. security, but to make it happen, its governments have to spend more. And they have to face the reality that even the most humane diplomacy sometimes has to be backed by military force.

With reporting by Aryn Baker/Kabul, Leo Cendrowicz/Brussels, Sally B. Donnelly and Elaine Shannon/Washington, J.F.O. McAllister/London and Andrew Purvis/Berlin

The original version of this article first appeared in the December 4, 2006 issue of TIME Europe.

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