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Out of Area, Out of Business?

Author: Stewart M. Patrick, James H. Binger Senior Fellow in Global Governance and Director of the International Institutions and Global Governance Program
March 25, 2009
National Interest Online


On April 3, the leaders of history's most successful multilateral alliance will gather in Strasbourg, France. NATO confronts an existential crisis in Afghanistan, which has become a test of its utility in the twenty-first century. If it fails there, it risks fading into irrelevance.

Today, fifty-five thousand troops from thirty-eight nations-including twenty-three thousand from the United States-are fighting under NATO's banner. (Another twenty thousand fall under a separate U.S. command as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.)

President Obama will soon announce the results of a two-month strategic review of U.S. Afghan policy. The administration will embrace a ramped-up counterinsurgency effort, beginning with seventeen thousand more U.S. troops. The success of this "made in the USA" strategy, however, will require an international unity of effort. Unfortunately, America's allies remain divided on some fundamental issues. Before the Strasbourg summit, NATO needs to answer the following questions.

Whose war is this? In 2002, German Defense Minister Peter Struck memorably declared that the defense of Germany began in the Hindu Kush. This unity of purpose has since evaporated. Public support for the war is plunging across most NATO countries, and even previously committed nations like Canada and the Netherlands plan to reduce their military presence. Allied governments have placed more than seventy "national caveats" on involvement in combat operations--content, as British Defense Secretary John Hutton has noted, to "freeload" on the U.S. military. The Strasbourg summit must clarify whether this is still NATO's war--or just America's.

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