Afghanistan: Rethinking an Old Alliance

By: Greg C. Reeson

The United States and its allies are in danger of losing the war in Afghanistan. A resurgent Taliban is in control of large parts of the country, the central government in Kabul is corrupt and incapable of exerting its authority beyond the capital, a flourishing drug trade is financing criminals, war lords, and terrorists, violence is spiraling out of control, and members of the U.S.-led coalition are growing weary of a stability operation-turned-full-fledged war that is eroding public opinion among the populations of Afghanistan, Europe, and the United States.

In the U.S., President Barack Obama has ordered a comprehensive strategic review of the American effort in Afghanistan, and has announced his intention to increase the number of American military forces in the country by as many as 30,000. That would bring the total U.S. commitment to about 65,000, around double the number provided by all other nations contributing assets to the fight against Taliban and al Qaeda militants. As the United States seeks a new way forward in Afghanistan, it should seriously consider leaving behind old alliances that are proving to be more of a hindrance than a help in prosecuting the Global War on Terrorism. A good place to start is with NATO.

NATO was originally formed to defend Western Europe from the threat posed by an expansionist Soviet Union. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of America’s rival superpower left the alliance without a common enemy, and in search of a new reason for its existence. That reason appeared to be made clear when al Qaeda terrorists struck the United States in New York and Washington, D.C. on September 11, 2001. NATO rallied to America’s side and immediately invoked the collective defense article of its charter, affirming its founding principle that an attack against one member state was an attack against all. NATO’s initial display of unified determination to confront radical Islamism, however, quickly gave way to a half-hearted effort in Afghanistan that has been held back by limited troop contributions and national caveats on the employment of those troops that ultimately has limited the ability of coalition commanders in the field to effectively fight the war.

Right now the United States has more than 30,000 troops committed to Afghanistan, while the next largest troop contributor, Great Britain, has less than 9,000. Other major allies, including Germany, France, Canada, The Netherlands, Australia and Italy, are contributing less than 3,000 each. President Obama promised during his campaign that he would ask the United States’ NATO allies to increase their force contributions in Afghanistan, but their response thus far has been nothing short of disheartening. Great Britain announced plans to send 300 more soldiers, and Italy intends to send 800 more. France has said a small, non-combat element may be sent, and Australia, a non-NATO ally with roughly 1,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, is taking the allocation of additional troops under consideration. Germany immediately rejected the idea of sending more forces, a move quickly followed by Spain, and both The Netherlands and Canada are planning on withdrawing their contingents in 2010 and 2011, respectively.
NATO’s Western European members and Canada are in a difficult situation. Lacking domestic support for continuing operations in Afghanistan, but understanding their commitments to the alliance, many member states have imposed national caveats on their forces that severely restrict their usefulness to commanders on the ground. Some are confined to their bases in support roles, while others are only permitted to engage in reconstruction and humanitarian operations. Some can only operate during daylight, and others are only able to fire their weapons in self defense (ruling out their use for offensive operations). The end result is that very few nations, the United States, Great Britain, and Canada to be precise, are bearing the brunt of the fighting, and the dying.
NATO is not likely to get its act together in time to save Afghanistan, and a failed Afghan state is just not a realistic option for the United States. Losing in Afghanistan would not just open the door to terrorists seeking a safe haven from which to operate. It would pave the way for the failure of Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation of nearly 200 million that is barely hanging on against Islamic radicals threatening it from Afghanistan and from within its own borders.

The United States is running out of options, and the time has come to consider abandoning an ineffective NATO in favor of coalitions of like-minded nations that possess both the will and the capability necessary to succeed. Some of those nations will be NATO member states; others will not. There is no escaping the reality that NATO has fallen victim to the same national divisions that have rendered the United Nations impotent when it comes to solving global security problems. It is a basic truth of international relations that alliances come and go, but national interests endure. Given what is at stake in Afghanistan, for the region and for the world, the United States must acknowledge that the current NATO effort is not working. Doing so will allow Washington to finally craft a strategy for success where America and its allies have thus far known nothing but failure.

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