How NATO Chose to Fail in Afghanistan

  • Share
  • Read Later
The yardstick by which the success of NATO's summit in the Latvian capital of Riga would be measured was always going to be Afghanistan. By engaging 32,000 troops there — its first full-scale military action outside of Europe — against a now resurgent Taliban, the Western alliance had posed itself a cruel test of solidarity in one of the world's most historically ungovernable patches. Last week it effectively failed the test.

President George W. Bush and his key allies — Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair, Canadian leader Stephen Harper and NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer — wanted a greater sharing of the burden, and to give ground commanders full authority to deploy troops as they see fit, rather than be required to refer back to defense ministries in Europe's capitals. But the caveats that keep Italian, French, German and Spanish troops out of the heavy combat zones in the south of the country were not significantly relaxed. The Poles offered up an additional 1,000 troops toward the 2,500 reserve force that NATO military staff consider crucial to prosecute the war, and the French were among the allies promising to deploy troops to trouble spots in the event of "an emergency." But the sum effect was cold comfort for the Canadian, British, American and Dutch governments whose troops are bearing the brunt of the conflict. Canadian Foreign Minister Peter McKay, whose country has lost 40 soldiers this year, expressed concerns that an already jittery Canadian public could begin to balk at its commitment if its allies aren't seen as pulling their weight.

NATO in Afghanistan has become an institutional fig leaf for an ad hoc and unstable coalition of the willing. The crux of the Atlantic alliance is its mutual defense clause, the all-for-one principle, in which an attack on any member is considered an attack on them all. But that clause's limitations were first displayed after Sept. 11, 2001, when it was invoked in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, only to be spurned by a Bush Administration set on keeping tight reins on its response.

U.S. skepticism over the efficacy of the alliance, however, didn't start with President Bush. Clinton Administration officials had bitterly complained of the political meddling and command confusion that hampered NATO's 1999 air war to push Serb troops out of Kosovo.

Now the rebuff is coming from the other side, for equally understandable reasons. Mutual defense of NATO territory is one thing; the call to stand shoulder to shoulder in a bedeviled country thousands of miles away from Europe is a more troublesome proposition. It isn't simply a question of resources: Canada is on the front line despite an anemic defense budget. For all the lip service paid to Afghanistan as a war that cannot be lost, there seems to be a lack of political will to do what is necessary to win it.

The French are right that military action in the south of Afghanistan isn't making many friends for the West, and they at least have been consistent in counseling against NATO taking on a war-fighting role. But the Taliban isn't going to yield peacefully to the economic aid and civic encouragement aimed at bolstering the embattled government of Hamid Karzai. Security comes first. At Riga the alliance underwrote a still vague plan for a "Contact Group' that would involve neighboring countries and international organizations in the search for a solution for Afghanistan. But Washington's velvet-gloved relationship with Pakistan — and its non-existent relationship with Iran — augurs poorly for that effort. Robust and dangerous military action is a still unavoidable task, and NATO after Riga is in no better shape to manage it fairly than before.