NATO is Dying in Afghanistan

By: Greg C. Reeson

The United States is asking its allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to cough up more military forces for the war in Afghanistan. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates just finished making the rounds at a two-day conference of NATO defense ministers in Budapest, Hungary, in an effort to win more resources for what is once again considered the central front in the global war on terrorism.

Gates’ plea is not new, of course. The U.S. government has been asking NATO to bolster its commitment to Afghanistan for years. What’s different this time is that Afghanistan is at a critical point. The situation on the ground is becoming increasingly untenable, and the need for additional forces is becoming more critical than it has been in the past. What is not different is that America’s calls for a greater international effort in the former-al Qaeda safe-haven will probably go unheeded.

Since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States’ allies in NATO have increasingly cut defense spending to the point where the ability of the alliance to conduct any type of meaningful operation is in serious doubt. Afghanistan has proven to be a significant challenge for NATO, one that could signal the demise of the defense alliance. In addition to funding challenges, NATO has problems with national caveats on member states’ troops and an operational capability gap that leaves the United States bearing most of the burden for any NATO operation.

What is ostensibly a NATO effort in Afghanistan is in reality a U.S. effort, with a minor supporting cast. NATO troop contributions represent only a fraction of the total foreign presence, despite NATO’s invocation of the collective defense clause of its charter in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on 9/11. And what troops are there are largely limited in their ability to conduct operations by national caveats that keep troops out of harm’s way.

There are, of course, some notable exceptions. The Brits, as one would expect, the Dutch, and the Canadians are fighting and dying alongside their American counterparts. They have proven their mettle time and time again, and they have proven themselves to be reliable partners in the fight. But German troops are restricted to non-combat roles, as are the troops from most of the other nations with forces currently in Afghanistan. A recent German agreement to increase its force size from 1,000 to 4,500 means little if those forces cannot be employed in combat operations against a resurgent and increasingly bold Taliban in the most dangerous parts of the country.

French troops are likewise limited in the role they play. Still, Afghanistan is a theater of war, and in wars, people die. The French citizenry was horrified not too long ago when ten French paratroopers were killed in an ambush in Afghanistan, and there have been increasing calls in France for the withdrawal of the French contingent. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has remained a valuable ally in the face of increasing domestic opposition, but it is unclear how long he will be able to buck public opinion in France. Many European countries have no stomach for casualties at any level, a fact that is, to a degree, understandable given that Europe has suffered through two of the most horrific conflicts ever waged by man. This aversion to casualties makes it difficult for European governments to actively employ their forces in combat roles, even when those governments deem it to be necessary and right. So, even if other NATO countries were to pony up additional forces, restrictions on their location and ability to conduct operations would effectively limit any real impact they might have on the fight.

The operational capability gap is another problem. Reduced defense spending by America’s NATO allies has resulted in significant shortfalls in equipment capability and compatibility. Virtually all airlift operations are conducted by the United States, and many nations rely exclusively on the U.S. for logistical support in general. The inability of many NATO allies to support their own forces places enormous strain on the already thinly stretched U.S. military. Europe is years behind the United States when it comes to military capability, a fact that becomes glaringly obvious in the conduct of coalition operations.

NATO is in danger. If it can’t or won’t muster the forces and the will to win in Afghanistan, how will it be able to counter a rising Russian threat? How will it protect new member states struggling to move closer to western powers? How will it remain relevant in an increasingly complex and dangerous world?

What is becoming increasingly apparent is that NATO is unlikely to pass the Afghanistan test. As calls for more troops continue to be ignored, the United States is planning even more increases in U.S. force levels to stem the advances made by the Taliban over the past two years. The Americanization of the Afghanistan war is nearly complete. We are clearly not winning the fight in Afghanistan. If we lose this war, the credibility and viability of NATO as a collective defense alliance will be lost with it.

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