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NATO’s Afghan Trials

Author: Greg Bruno
Updated: December 21, 2007

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Patience is at a premium among NATO allies in Afghanistan. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, frustrated by an inability to secure additional helicopters and soldiers, lashed out at member nations ahead of meetings in Scotland on December 15. Britain’s top defense official, Des Browne, also has called on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) “to share the burden” (BBC) in rebuilding. Those allies on the receiving end of such messages—including Germany, which supplies the third-largest contingent of forces to the effort but refuses to conduct major combat missions—responded coolly (Spiegel Online). The criticism will be “taken seriously,” a spokesman for the German interior ministry said, “but is not entirely new.”

Bickering between capitals underscores the challenges facing the Afghanistan mission six years after U.S.-led forces invaded. Suicide attacks are on the rise (PDF), aid workers are increasingly targeted (Times of London), and the Taliban has surfaced in once-peaceful regions. U.S. and British pleas for multilateral assistance also say much about the health of NATO itself—and the price of failure for the strategic alliance forged in the early days of the Cold War. Until this year’s Taliban resurgence tied up NATO forces, particularly from Canada, Britain, and the Netherlands, the alliance had focused largely on development and reconstruction. There are 41,700 troops from thirty-nine countries in the International Security Assistance Force (PDF), including fifteen thousand Americans. But the United States also has an additional twelve thousand non-NATO soldiers who conduct counterinsurgency missions. The two forces don’t always coordinate.

Others find fault outside NATO’s structure. Barnett R. Rubin, an Afghanistan expert at New York University, says the foot dragging by member nations is linked to the Bush administration’s go-it-alone attitude early in the war. Julianne Smith of the Center for Strategic and International Studies blames the United States and its partners for neglecting broader regional issues (PDF) such as the deepening unrest in neighboring Pakistan. She says an inability to stem the influx from Pakistan’s tribal areas, home to training camps for al-Qaeda and the Taliban, has prompted some NATO partners to “lose confidence” in the mission.

Revamping the alliance’s role has therefore become a key concern for Washington and Brussels. The Bush administration, under pressure (WashPost) to shift resources from Iraq where violence levels are declining, is said to be considering an increase in troops to Afghanistan. The top NATO commander in Afghanistan supports the increase. A series of strategy reevaluations (NYT) are also planned to bolster counterinsurgency and development efforts. On December 20 President Bush said his “biggest concern” would be for NATO countries to withdraw troops prematurely. Meanwhile, the United States and Britain are seeking to install a “super envoy” (Reuters) to coordinate international efforts and some alliance members are considering an extension of their mission.

Washington can use the help; the Bush administration’s ability to foster NATO success in Afghanistan is seen as vital to the alliance’s future (PDF), and to that of the region. Chaos in Afghanistan could embolden regional actors, including Iran (thought to be supporting the Taliban), and militants in Pakistan. Yet a renewed and vibrant NATO alliance is far from guaranteed. CFR President Richard N. Haass, writing in the Financial Times, argues Europe’s “capacity for global intervention is diminishing, especially in the military field.” For the Pentagon, which is fighting two wars concurrently, such predictions are ominous indeed. “It is simply a matter of resources, of capacity,” Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told lawmakers on December 11. “In Afghanistan, we do what we can. In Iraq, we do what we must.”

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