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NATO Tries to Pivot Past Afghanistan

Author: Charles A. Kupchan
May 22, 2012

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NATO's Chicago summit went more or less according to plan. The allies agreed upon a timetable and strategy for winding down the war in Afghanistan. They embraced a set of proposals--dubbed "smart defense"--aimed at pooling resources and giving NATO more collective capability. They expressed strong support for the deployment of an evolving system of missile defense. And the presence at the summit of more than thirty non-NATO leaders advanced the alliance's commitment to developing new partnerships and deepening its global engagement.

Talk of Afghanistan dominated the summit. With the war increasingly unpopular among electorates in member states, NATO leaders were more than ready to formulate a plan for bringing the NATO mission to a close by the end of 2014. The phased withdrawal marks a significant evolution in the alliance's objectives--away from counterinsurgency, toward training Afghan forces and forging a political compact (one that would include the Taliban) aimed at providing long-term stability.

NATO confronted two setbacks on the Afghanistan front. First, despite the presence in Chicago of Pakistan's president, Asif Ali Zardari, no deal emerged on reopening the flow of supply convoys from Pakistan to Afghanistan. Second, France's new president, Francois Hollande, stood by his campaign pledge to expedite the withdrawal of French combat troops by bringing them home by the end of 2012. France's early departure, although not a huge blow in operational terms, undercuts alliance solidarity.

With NATO winding down the mission in Afghanistan, the Chicago summit sought to pivot to other issues. NATO's focus in Chicago on global partnerships and on strengthening defense capability was in many respects an effort to begin mapping out a post-Afghanistan agenda.

Moving forward with the enlargement of NATO, a staple of many recent summits, was noticeably not on the agenda in Chicago. NATO has by no means ended that process; its door remains open to Macedonia, Georgia, and other states that have expressed the desire to join. But enlargement is on hold for now. NATO leaders also steered clear of Syria, a clear indication of continuing frustration on both sides of the Atlantic over how to stop the violence--and a sign of the minimal appetite within NATO for military intervention. NATO's Libya campaign succeeded in ousting a dictator, but it also sowed divisions within NATO that, along with the war in Afghanistan, have left the alliance wary of embarking on new missions.

Also not on the agenda was the financial crisis in Europe--an understandable omission, since NATO focuses only on security. But the eurozone's economic vulnerability and the political wrangling that has accompanied it are not good news for NATO. The long-term health of the alliance depends on a strong and purposeful European pillar. Despite the new emphasis on "smart defense," a combination of defense cutbacks and political weakness within the EU are likely to deny NATO that stronger Europe for some time to come.

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