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U.S.-NATO: Looking for Common Ground in Afghanistan

Interviewee: Robert E. Hunter, Senior Advisor, RAND Corporation
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
December 9, 2009

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Former U.S. ambassador to NATO Robert E. Hunter says that the NATO alliance is under pressure from the United States to increase force levels in Afghanistan. He says that very few European countries believe that prevailing in Afghanistan "is necessary for their own security," but they go along with Washington to keep the United States focused on dealing with possible threats from Russia.

"Everybody in Europe understands that managing the future of Russia in regard to Europe can only be done with American engagement and, yes, to a great extent, American leadership. And they want to keep the United States equally engaged in Europe as a European power, not just as an insurance policy but also as the principal manager of Russia's future."

President Obama in his major speech announced he would send thirty thousand new troops to Afghanistan, but he also said forces would begin to withdraw in July 2011. This was followed by rollback statements from his top aides, saying, "Well, we still may be there for many years." Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, on his way to Afghanistan said, "We are in this thing to win." What does NATO make of all this?

What Obama said is a conditions-based withdrawal. It doesn't give any final dates for actually withdrawing. But that I think it also led to a good deal of confusion in Europe. In the first place, Europeans always complain about the nature of consultations. They always argue that there has never been enough, and that has been true in this case as well. The decision was an American one, which was then given to the Europeans, some of whom have had some role in it, but very few. Some people would argue that they would rather have a fait accompli by the American leadership, thereby relieving them of any responsibility; others would say, "once again the United States is dropping something on us, and expecting us to go along."

How many troops are in Afghanistan now? What about after the new "surge"?

There are two operations in Afghanistan: One is Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), which is almost entirely United States now, and has thirty-six thousand U.S. troops. The other one is the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)--which is the NATO-commanded operation, but U.S. Commander General Stanley McChrystal also commands these forces. ISAF now has about sixty-eight thousand forces from forty-two countries, and with the thirty thousand extra U.S. troops announced by Obama, plus the seven thousand promised by the Allies, there will then be nearly one hundred thousand-plus troops in ISAF, plus the Americans in OEF.

In terms of motivation, very few European countries believe that winning in Afghanistan--that is, dismantling, defeating, and destroying al-Qaeda and Taliban--is necessary for their own security. A few believe that, but most do not. When they add forces, it is to protect the credibility of NATO now that it is there. NATO has never failed at anything it chose to do. Many of these governments wouldn't repeat what they did in 2003 when they sent troops, but that's water over the dam, and they don't want NATO to be damaged by a failure to persevere in Afghanistan.

So what we're dealing with is a kind of implicit, unspoken bargain. Will the United States recommit in practical ways to being a European power, and at the same time, will the Europeans assist what they see to be primarily U.S. interests and U.S. motivations in regard to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

Most of them are doing this ... to please the United States. There are two basic issues within NATO. One is the immediate issue of Afghanistan. The other is a difference of perspective about what challenges NATO faces. Most Europeans would argue that the work of wrapping up the Cold War is still not entirely finished. There are some minor issues and one huge, major issue. The minor issues are in places like the Balkans; the bigger issue is the future of Russia.

Expound about the concern about Russia.

Everybody in Europe understands that managing the future of Russia in regard to Europe can only be done with American engagement and, yes, to a great extent, American leadership. Everybody can hear what Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has said about a resurgent Russia. They can see the growing dependence on Russian-origin or Russian-transited energy. They see what the Russians did with regard to cyber security, and particularly with regard to Estonia and Georgia where both countries' internal communications were hacked, and they will say, "We need to be sure that the United States remains here in Europe, working with us to deal with a problem that frankly, as able as we might be at some point, we can't deal with it unless America is here."

Is Afghanistan a way for Europe to sort of "pay the rent?" to the United States?

Yes. For the United States, although we obviously have to deal with Russia, it's not our primary focus today. Our primary strategic focus begins with the Persian Gulf and goes through to the Hindu Kush. We have two wars going on. We have the Afghan situation and the Pakistan situation in which there are no obvious solutions. But this is where our strategic focus is. Whether it should be or shouldn't be, we can argue that, and certainly it arises to a great extent out of two events. One was the folly of going into Iraq and then owning Iraq. The second was responding, as I think virtually all Americans agreed on, to get rid of al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan after 9/11. That's our strategic focus. Many Europeans will say, "We don't see it that way. Certainly we don't see that committing a lot of blood and treasure is something we can justify to our populations." Even when governments are willing to do it, how do they sell it to their people? So what we're dealing with is a kind of implicit, unspoken bargain. Will the United States recommit in practical ways to being a European power, and at the same time, will the Europeans assist what they see to be primarily U.S. interests and U.S. motivations in regard to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

In the president's speech there was a good deal of ambivalence. On the one hand, there is a lot of tough rhetoric, and the definition of interests that have to be achieved. There is, however, a fundamental flaw in the president's logic, because he says we have this need to deal in certain respects with al-Qaeda and the Taliban, but we are betting that beginning in July 2011, we'll be in a position to reduce our military footprint, gambling that the Afghans will be better able to do things on their own by then. Secondly is the idea that the Afghan government has to pull its socks up. The president used the word "vital" to express our interests. But, having said it's vital, if the Afghan government doesn't pull up its socks, he suggested that we will begin to lose confidence in them. You really can't have it both ways. It's either vital or it's not vital.

And that obviously unnerved the Afghans enough that Gates has been sent to reassure them?

That's right, and in fact [Afghan] President Hamid Karzai said, "I would be perfectly happy to sit down with Mullah Omar [the leader of the Taliban] and see where we can go on this." He's said that before. The idea that the Afghans would sit there and wait for the United States to depart at some point without cutting their own deals, I find hard to understand.

[W]e in the United States are going to need overtime to decide how much is NATO worth to us, not just as a place holder, not just as something that's worth having because you have an integrated military command structure…but how much can we really rely on NATO for our strategic business?.

Now, look at it from the European point of view. If the president is saying this is very important--and he wants us to come along--but the United States has now conditioned its engagement on what Afghanistan is able to do for itself--and he has said the United States expects to start withdrawing by a date certain--however it's strung out, the Europeans ask, "How can I sell that to my public?" A few countries can: The British can; the French are committed to it, they're now talking about the terms and conditions of what they will do; the Danes are committed; the Germans have a real problem. What the Germans are doing now, because it's so difficult for them, is to say, "We will wait for the Afghan review conference on January 28 to come up with a full package of what Europe has to do to make Afghanistan more successful, and after that, we will decide about troops." I would suspect after that, the Germans will find a way to increase their troops slightly. So understand this is not something which people are doing whole-heartedly, and it risks continuing to have a corrosive impact on NATO.

I know the Canadians want to get out...

The Canadians and Dutch are talking about getting out in 2011. Canadians, you know, have taken more fatalities [than] in any war since Korea.

What do NATO countries want from the Afghans?

The lynchpin in some ways is not on the military side; it is on a few other things. How fast can you train Afghan security personnel to do more for themselves? How do you have a political basis so that they're responsive, so they'll actually be working for a central government? Secondly, the legitimacy of the government in Kabul. That's not just within Afghanistan; it's also legitimacy as seen by Western governments that are being asked to commit blood and treasure. Next is reconstruction, and that is the place where it has been most surprising so little has been done over recent years. If I were giving the president's speech, I would have stressed strongly the importance of non-military help, including from provincial reconstruction teams. One thing that the Europeans have not done, in part because of their ambivalence, is they have not put together a system for getting real non-military resources pumped into Afghanistan. And they have not put in place a senior person to do the coordination, in Afghanistan and in Europe, the man to go around with the tin cup. There is the person who does that for the United Nations, Ambassador Kai Eide of Norway. The problem with having him as the European coordinator, even if he were to head it, is first, he's only an ambassador [and] it needs to be a much more senior person, and secondly, he's a Norwegian, and they don't belong to the European Union. This is what Obama should be asking for, and frankly that's a lot easier for the Europeans to respond to.

Does the United States have any doubts about NATO?

Now, backing away from this slightly, we in the United States are going to need overtime to decide how much is NATO worth to us, not just as a place holder, not just as something that's worth having because you have an integrated military command structure, and people train together and they speak the same language and all of that, but how much can we really rely on NATO for our strategic business? Right now, the answer is not as much as in the past, and depending on what happens in Afghanistan, some people may come to the conclusion that it's not worth very much. So a lot of what the Europeans are prepared to do now is because they hear the same things. They understand that keeping America committed as a European power requires their, as you put it, "paying the rent."

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