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."

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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.

A few months ago, Gates resisted pressures to transfer 3,000 Marines from Iraq to Afghanistan. He was in the process of pushing the Europeans to send more of their troops; if he sent more Americans, the heat would be off the Europeans. Last month, he finally sent in the Marines, after realizing that the allies—mainly for their own domestic political reasons—just weren't going to send more of their own troops to fight and die in this war.

It's frustrating, but such is the state of alliance politics in the post-Cold War world, where power is diffused and fractured; where coalitions must be negotiated, not assumed; and where not even the world's most powerful nation has the power to compel even friendly nations to act against what they regard as their interests.

Gen. Dan K. McNeill, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, said at a Pentagon briefing Wednesday that the military mission is "under-resourced." However, he also said that a counterinsurgency campaign, along the lines of U.S. doctrine, would require more than 400,000 NATO and Afghan troops. NATO troops currently total about 40,000 (including those that won't fight). The Afghan national army has roughly another 60,000, of mixed effectiveness.

From one angle, then, the Germans have a point in this debate. Based on Gen. McNeill's calculation, they could reasonably argue: If we did send a few thousand troops to fight in the southern provinces, that wouldn't tip the balance; why should we shed blood and treasure for the sake of symbolism?

From another angle, though, this argument is a cop-out. If each of the NATO nations sent a few thousand more troops and agreed on common and effective rules of engagement, that would have an effect. The problem is that the NATO nations didn't get into this war on any such understanding; most of them didn't think they were getting into a war. Until Gates came along, no senior U.S. official has done much to try to persuade them to change their approach. Gates' first stab at a campaign last month—bawling out the Europeans in public for not doing what they'd never agreed to do in the first place—was a disastrous start. He has toned his message down since, but he (that is, the Bush administration) doesn't have much time to make the case and negotiate new terms.

The real problem goes back still further. When the United States helped kick the Soviet army out of Afghanistan in the 1980s, we left soon thereafter—the goal was to defeat the Russians, not help the Afghans. And so the Taliban filled the vacuum. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the United States kicked the Taliban out of Kabul; but—remarkably—we left again, to go oust Saddam Hussein. The Taliban and al-Qaida never fully went away; now they're back in force. And Pakistan, which never stopped harboring the Taliban, is teetering on some sort of brink, as well.

What is needed now goes well beyond Germany's reticence, goes well beyond NATO. What's needed is a full-blown initiative—military, economic, diplomatic—involving all the nations of the region. It requires imagination, tireless negotiations, heaps of money (in part to pay for other countries' troops, since we have so few to spare), and some unpleasant deal-making with some otherwise unpleasant nations.

Even if President Bush had a sudden revelation, he couldn't do much about it at this point. (Who wants to do serious haggling with a lame duck?) Nothing much is going to happen for another 11 months. Let's hope that's not too long.

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