The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) likes to think of itself as the most successful military alliance in history for its role in checking Soviet expansion during the Cold War. But faced with fighting an actual war in Afghanistan, the alliance is finding it hard to turn decades of war planning into an effective battlefield strategy (TIME). Speaking to the American Enterprise Institute, President Bush on February 15 echoed complaints from U.S. commanders in Afghanistan that some European NATO military units arrive with so many “caveats,” or restrictions on engagement, that they amount to little more than an overarmed constabulary. He has ordered 3,200 soldiers of the U.S. 173rd Airborne Brigade into the country, a move he must not relish given the tenor of the U.S. domestic debate on Iraq.
Many of Europe's politicians, however, appear unmoved. Under political fire at home, Norway's government assured angry parliamentarians on February 14 its 150 soldiers would serve only in the relatively calm capital city, Kabul (Aftenposten). German and French forces, too, operate under strict, noncombat limitations (LAT).
The effort to secure Afghanistan could falter, Bush said, if NATO does not step up. “Allies must lift restrictions on the forces they do provide so NATO commanders have the flexibility they need to defeat the enemy.” He added his voice to numerous predictions that Taliban forces will conduct their own “surge” (NYT) when the spring thaw arrives in Afghanistan.
The president's clarion call comes after months of similar warnings from military officers, regional experts, and congressional leaders. Testifying February 13 before the House Armed Services Committee, Lt. Gen. Karl W. Eikenberry, the outgoing U.S. commander in Afghanistan, says NATO forces risk the “irretrievable loss of legitimacy (PDF) of the government of Afghanistan” if the alliance continues its current operational pace. The United States itself has faced calls for adjusting its strategy from experts such as New York University's Barnett R. Rubin, who writes in the latest Foreign Affairs that Washington must apply more pressure on Islamabad to end its support for the Taliban. Last April, a Council Special Report, also authored by Rubin, warned that no coherent strategy for stabilizing the country existed.
A Newsday editorial notes that Bush did not address the critical role Pakistan must play in sealing its border with Afghanistan. The Wilson Center's Dennis Kux warns in this podcast that Pakistan appears to have little control of the frontier. This Backgrounder explains the devilishly complex political situation in the Pakistani tribal areas that line the border.
While Bush's speech targeted NATO shirkers, it inadvertently slighted Canada (Toronto Star), whose forces have fought hard in Afghanistan's intensely contested south. Bush's failure to mention Canada's contribution to the NATO effort in Afghanistan came at a sensitive moment for the United States' northern neighbor. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has faced intense pressure recently from his Senate to consider a withdrawal deadline in what Ottawa Citizen columnist Susan Riley calls “an increasingly unwinnable military campaign and a moral conundrum.”