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NATO in Afghanistan

Author: Greg Bruno
February 19, 2009

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After seven years of urging coalition countries to beef up troop commitments in Afghanistan, Washington appears to have concluded the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) cannot be relied upon to provide the "hard power" needed to counter Taliban gains. As a result, the United States is going soft. Last month, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told lawmakers he wanted coalition partners to focus on  "civilian support" (McClatchy). Other Obama administration officials have signaled the United States intends to leave development policy "increasingly to European allies" (NYT). President Obama plans to send an additional 17,000 soldiers to the fight.

But if the approach was meant as a way to allow America's wary European allies to take part without committing troops to combat, some inside NATO, including the alliance's secretary general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, worry that European influence on geopolitical questions will be diminished as a result. "When the United States asks for a serious partner, it doesn't just want advice, it wants, and deserves, someone to share the heavy lifting," Scheffer told the annual NATO international security conference in Munich.

Ever since the toppling of the Taliban in 2001, the Afghan fight has been seen as a test case for the sixty-year-old NATO alliance. Few would argue NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan has passed the test. American troops joke that ISAF stands for "I Saw Americans Fight" (USNews). While such barracks humor exaggerates the problem, a February 2009 assessment of the alliance's future (PDF) led by Daniel Hamilton of Johns Hopkins University concludes that NATO may fracture irrevocably "if Europe and North America are unable to quell the threat emanating from the Afghan-Pakistani borderlands."

How or even whether NATO should factor into the broader mission in Afghanistan is a topic of increasing debate among U.S. policymakers. In Munich last month, U.S. National Security Adviser Gen. James L. Jones called on NATO "to become less reactive and more proactive" in dealing with threats. Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Central Asia, says NATO troops, along with Afghan forces, must improve their counterinsurgency capabilities. Some European allies have pledged to up the ante. Britain, for one, plans to add 300 additional "specialist troops" (The Times) to the 8,300 it already has in Afghanistan. But others have chafed at adding troops. German Defense Minister Franz-Josef Jung has said military force is not the answer (Deutsche Welle). France has ignored requests for additional forces (AP) and has announced sharp reductions of its forces abroad elsewhere (France24). Besides Canada, Britain, Poland, non-NATO Australia, and the United States, most international forces--there are an estimated 55,000 troops (PDF) currently under NATO command--operate under rules that restrict their operations to self-defense. That means the bulk of any future combat forces will likely be American.

NATO caveats and allies' resistance to military adventurism come amid a string of declining metrics in Afghanistan. A new UN report (PDF) finds that civilian casualties spiked 40 percent between 2007 and 2008, to 2,118 dead--the highest during the U.S.-led war effort. The majority of these deaths occurred in the south and southeast, where Taliban control appears to be increasing (PDF). Yet all is not lost. Seth G. Jones, an Afghanistan expert at the RAND Corporation, says that if U.S. and NATO forces change strategy to exploit militants' weaknesses, instead of ignoring them, the war may still be won.

To get there, though, Washington will likely need to shoulder the bulk of the burden, experts say. Some of the United States' most ardent supporters--notably the British--are showing strains from extended conflicts (Economist) in Iraq and Afghanistan. Domestic political unease is also rewriting the script in allied capitals. During an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on the eve of a visit to Ottawa this week, Obama sidestepped a question about whether his administration would seek continued Canadian combat support after that country's mandate expires in 2011. Continued troop deployments have been a political hot potato for Canadian politicians. As Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies sees it, all this suggests a simple truth: like it or not, Afghanistan is America's war now (PDF).

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