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NATO Pins Future to Afghanistan

Prepared by: Michael Moran
November 29, 2006

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The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) pinned its future credibility on its difficult mission in Afghanistan, declaring in a joint statement at its Riga summit that its peacekeepers must have the forces, resources, and flexibility needed "to ensure the mission's continued success" (WashPost). Yet they made only limited progress on lifting national restrictions on deployed forces which render many German, Spanish, Italian, and other troops of little use in combat zones (FT).

On paper, NATO’s Afghan force looks impressive (PDF), with multinational commands in all parts of the country. Yet many NATO members are not exactly queuing up to send troops. The restrictions on how their soldiers can react to events, in practice, mean the 32,000 NATO forces in country only yield about 26,000 actually able to fight, dominated by Dutch, British, Canadian, and American forces (Toronto Star). (A separate force of 8,000 U.S. troops conduct intensive counterinsurgency operations outside NATO's purview on the Afghan-Pakistan border). For instance, some are forbidden to use tear gas as a crowd control method. German forces, recently rocked by scandal when some of their troops frolicked in photographs with human skeletal remains, are directed toward quieter areas of the country to avoid political backlash at home (DeutscheWelle).

These problems must be overcome or NATO may not survive as a useful entity, writes Robert Hunter, a former U.S. ambassador to the alliance. NATO has “bet the alliance” on Afghanistan (Project Syndicate), he says. “No amount of ‘transformation’ or ‘partnerships’ or anything else will matter much if NATO fails for the first time in its history.” As Afghan expert Barnett R. Rubin told CFR.org’s Bernard Gwertzman, the country risks falling back toward anarchy. Adds a Christian Science Monitor editorial, "the subject highest on the summit agenda—stabilizing and rebuilding Afghanistan—is the very one that demands an answer to NATO's existential question."

Just months after taking command of most of the Afghanistan mission from the United States, NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) peacekeepers have their hands full. A visit by British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Monday to British forces battling Taliban remnants in the southern provinces focused largely on things already accomplished. But Blair also recognizes NATO’s forces risk being irrelevant if they cannot beat back the resurgent Taliban (FT), and the International Crisis Group, in a new report, backs his call for more troops. There is an important non-military side to the struggle as well—the need for Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government to bring reconstruction to rural areas of the country where his writ doesn’t mean much. As Gen. James L. Jones, NATO’s Supreme Commander, told a CFR audience last month, the real challenge in Afghanistan is how well the international aid mission is focused, calling this "the exit strategy for Afghanistan."

The difficulties deploying a functional multilateral force made up primarily of EU (with some Canadian and American) forces led NATO to create a new 25,000-strong Rapid Response Force (DeutscheWelle). Member states are required to place specific units on alert for six months, during which time they can be deployed immediately if NATO so chooses. John Colston, NATO’s assistant secretary general for defense policy and planning, says the Riga summit seeks to formally inaugurate the new unit, and to agree on a “comprehensive political guidance” making official the alliance’s new, extra-European ambitions. 

The new unit, however, does nothing to alleviate the alliance’s core problem—the unwillingness of its European military forces to modernize their forces and commit them to overseas missions. CFR Fellow James M. Goldgeier, with the Brookings Institution’s Ivo H. Daalder, suggests this argues for a more ambitious NATO expansion to include in its membership “Other democratic countries share NATO’s values and many common interests—including Australia, Brazil, Japan, India, New Zealand, South Africa and South Korea—and all of them can greatly contribute to NATO’s efforts by providing additional military forces or logistical support to respond to global threats and needs.”

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