Does NATO belong in Afghanistan?

Military analysis.
Feb. 24 2010 7:15 PM

Stop Slapping the Allies, Secretary Gates

Is NATO well-suited to wage war in Afghanistan?

It's time to reconsider the value and role of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The leaders of the Cold War alliance, which did so much to keep the peace in Europe for the latter half of the 20th century, are trying to stretch its scope and mission to the fighting fields of Afghanistan in a bid to keep it relevant—but they may be crossing a bridge too far.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates took a whack at the allies on Tuesday at a NATO Strategic Concept Seminar in Washington, D.C., berating all but a handful of them for spending too little on defense and paying too little attention to the gravest threats of the post-Cold War era.

He complained that just five of the alliance's 28 nations have met the common pledge to devote at least 2 percent of their gross domestic products to their military establishments—a shortfall that Gates decried as "NATO's budgetary crisis."

And while he lauded those nations that have agreed to send more troops to Afghanistan in the last few months, he noted that too few of them are providing the equipment—cargo planes, refueling tankers, helicopters, and reconnaissance drones—that's vital to the fight.

These failings, he concluded, raise doubts about whether NATO is capable of making the "transition" from "a static, defensive force," formed to deter and beat back a Soviet invasion of Europe, to "an expeditionary force" capable of staving off insurgents and terrorists in faraway lands.

The real question, though, is whether NATO is, or ever was, a suitable vehicle for this new, offensive mission. The evidence to date suggests it isn't.

Almost exactly two years ago, when he was still George W. Bush's defense secretary, Gates expressed similar worries that NATO might be "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."

He was referring to NATO's war in Afghanistan, and while President Barack Obama has since stepped up the United States' investment in that war—sending many more troops and approving a strategy at once more aggressive and more refined—the alliance is still split into two tiers.

Back in February 2008, just a handful of allies—Great Britain, Canada, the Netherlands, Denmark, and (outside NATO) Australia—let their troops be deployed, in any substantial number, in Afghanistan's southern or eastern regions, where most of the fighting took place. (The Czech Republic and Romania also allowed a small number of their troops to go there.)

Today, the reality is no different, except that two of those countries—Canada and the Netherlands—have announced that they'll soon bring their troops home.

None of this should ever have been surprising.

In the spring of 2006, when NATO took over command in Afghanistan, the assumption was that this would be a "peacekeeping" operation, not a war.

But as those peacekeepers moved south, the Taliban—which had never really left—came out to fight. It turned out to be a war after all. At that point, almost all of NATO's national governments set conditions on their troops' involvement—dozens of restrictions, officially called "caveats," in all. One nation's troops could be stationed in the north and west but not the south or east; another's could fight from the air but not on the ground; another's could defend against insurgents' assaults but not pursue the attackers. The list went on.

The whole business was absurd; there was no way to fight coalition warfare without a unified, or at least a coordinated, command.

Still, NATO headquarters acquiesced to these caveats, because without them the coalition would fall apart.

I went to Afghanistan in June of that year, on a NATO-sponsored trip with other journalists and mid-level officials. Everywhere we went, colonels and generals emphasized that the operation was—at least as much as anything else—a test of NATO's relevance in the post-Cold War world. It marked the first time NATO had led a major expeditionary combat force outside Europe; and so it would determine whether the alliance had any reason for existence, now that the Soviet Union—and thus the threat of an invasion of Western Europe—had evaporated.

From that point on, at least through the remainder of the Bush administration, there were two goals in the Afghanistan war: keeping the Taliban at bay and keeping NATO together. Often, the latter impeded the former.

U.S. commanders realized the setup was a fiction, and a dangerous one, from the start. This was why 7,000 of the 20,000 American troops on the ground at the time were put in the NATO-controlled force but the other 13,000 stayed in a separate U.S. command, mainly in the country's eastern region, near the Pakistani border, going after Taliban fighters under its own set of rules.

As the war has spread, more of the NATO allies' armies have been caught up in the fighting. For instance, Germany sent more than 4,000 troops to Afghanistan, but with the caveat that they would be stationed only in the country's northern region. Spain and Italy sent 3,000 and 1,000 respectively, but restricted to the western region. (This was in addition to the central area in Kabul, where all the countries involved have military personnel.) At the time, those regions were relatively tranquil, but since then, they have occasionally erupted in battles, and dozens of those countries' soldiers have been killed.

Some of the national governments have decided to stick it out, even to send more troops; others have not.

The point is not that the Americans and British should wave off the other allies and just fight this war by themselves (along with the Afghan National Army). Clearly, this needs to be a multinational campaign, in part because we lack the money and troops to fight it alone, in part because the fight gains legitimacy—among Afghans as well as the people and leaders of neighboring states—if it's not perceived as a solely American (or Western) enterprise.

Yet the point is that it shouldn't be a NATO enterprise, for three main reasons.

First, the NATO nametag may be keeping other countries in the region—countries with a more vital stake in the war's outcome—from taking a more active role in the fight. In the 1990-91 Gulf War, President George H.W. Bush, under the rubric of a U.N. resolution, amassed a vast coalition—including other Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Syria, all of which sent army divisions or air wings—to push Saddam Hussein's army out of Kuwait. (Most of these countries' forces weren't tactically essential, but they sent the message—which was strategically essential—that the war wasn't just a white, Western, or Judeo-Christian campaign.) If that war had been a NATO-led war, its course and results might have been very different.

Second, NATO was created at the dawn of the Cold War as a regional alliance—a multinational military power to defend Western Europe from a Soviet invasion and a political institution to bind the trans-Atlantic ties between the European continent and the new American superpower. It served both purposes extremely well, but maybe it's just not meant to be a global counterinsurgency force. The very premise of a NATO command in Afghanistan—that the alliance now needs to stretch its domain beyond its traditional "area of operation"—may be mistaken.

Finally, the Cold War's demise hardly means that NATO needs to go trotting off to distant continents in order to find a purpose. Even Gates, in his Feb. 23 speech, noted that, in the two decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the alliance has performed well in missions that are very different from defending against an invasion—for instance, stabilizing Bosnia, halting ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, and mounting counterterrorist operations in the Mediterranean.

But those missions differ in one crucial way from fighting the war in Afghanistan: They all took place in—and directly affected the security of—Europe. That is what NATO is meant to protect; it's called the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and the name means something. This is why many of its members are puzzled by the urgings to send more troops to Afghanistan and to spend more money on defense. (At the height of the Cold War, when Soviet tanks were less than a day's drive away, many NATO countries didn't meet the alliance's target to devote 3 percent of GDP to the military budget; they find it odd that such a fuss is made over their failure now to spend 2 percent.)

Some nations that happen to be NATO members might still have the desire or ability to join the fight in Afghanistan. Obama, Gates, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have every reason to rally them to the cause. But the fact that Australia is also sending troops and Japan is bankrolling the Afghan national police suggests that the war is not so much beyond NATO as outside it.

If some European nations don't want to fight, leave them alone. This war is not about the future of NATO, and the future of NATO is not bound up in this war. We shouldn't let disagreements over Afghanistan cause the fissure of an alliance that's still valuable in its own right.

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