The NATO mission in Afghanistan was flawed by design.

Military analysis.
Feb. 8 2008 11:16 AM

Flawed by Design

Gates and Rice shouldn't be angry, or surprised, at NATO's failure in Afghanistan.

Robert Gates. Click image to expand.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates

Robert Gates and Condoleezza Rice are peeved at the NATO allies for not doing their share in Afghanistan, and with some reason. A handful of the allies—Canada, Great Britain, Australia, Denmark, and the Netherlands—are in the thick of battle against the Taliban. But others are involved in little more than name only. The Germans, for instance, are willing to send more troops to northern Afghanistan, but under no circumstances will they send any to the south, where the fighting is going on.

Testifying before the Senate armed services committee this week, Gates said, "I worry a great deal about the alliance evolving into a two-tiered alliance, in which you have some allies willing to fight and die to protect people's security and others who are not."

Advertisement

It's a legitimate concern. But it's worth recalling how NATO got involved in this war to begin with. What's happening now should be no surprise whatsoever.

In early 2006, NATO made plans to relieve the United States of command over operations in Afghanistan. The mission was seen as vital, above all, to NATO. It was a test of whether, in the post-Cold War era, the alliance had any role to play as a unified expeditionary force. To get all the nations involved, "caveats" were negotiated. Some nations would send troops, but only if they didn't have to fight; others would fight, but not at night; and so forth. Troops under NATO command, in general, could engage in "proactive self-defense," a deliberately vague term that permitted commanders to fire when fired upon and go after insurgents if they were spotted nearby. But they could not initiate offensive operations. (For that reason, the United States would keep 13,000 troops, mainly airmen, under its own command—in addition to the 7,000 it was placing under NATO's—so that somebody could continue to go after Taliban forces on the Pakistan border.)

The assumption, on the part of the NATO nations, was that the mission would be shifting away from "counterterrorism" to "counterinsurgency"—that is, from "going after bad guys for the sake of going after bad guys" (as one British officer snidely put it to me when I visited Afghanistan that summer) to securing areas for the sake of promoting economic development.

In other words, most of the NATO nations agreed to send troops on the premise that they'd be engaged in peacekeeping, not warfighting.

Then, in the spring of 2006, the Taliban threw a wrench in the works by staging offensives throughout southern Afghanistan—a huge area, about the size of Germany—after four years of relative calm. (Actually, they'd been infiltrating the region all this time; they resumed their offensives only to resist the returning Western troops.)

The alliance isn't "evolving into a two-tiered alliance," as Gates said. When it comes to Afghanistan, it's been that kind of alliance from the start. As the fighting has grown fiercer, the inadequacies of this crazy quilt have become clearer.

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Dec. 17 2014 12:27 PM Listen to Our Ultimate Holiday Playlist Holiday tracks for the season, exclusively for Slate Plus members.