- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 11, 2003

NATO defense ministers gather today in Brussels to discuss the alliance’s latest challenge: In August, NATO will take over the peace-keeping mission in Afghanistan, in what could be a turning point not only for the country, but for the alliance as well.

NATO and U.S. officials remain clear-eyed about the challenges that the alliance will face in Afghanistan, given the ongoing (and perhaps escalating) lack of security. Last Saturday, four German peacekeepers were killed and seven seriously wounded when in a suicide bomber in a taxi collided with their bus. Tribal chieftains continue to control the country outside Kabul. How much of this violence and instability is NATO expected to contain, and what changes is the alliance expected to implement?

The Bush administration is more optimistic about the alliance’s ability to bolster global security, given NATO’s willingness to operate beyond Europe. The United States is pushing NATO to become a mobile force, and would like to see that agility in play in Afghanistan. It is still unclear, though, if the international community is expected to allocate much more than the $5.2 billion already pledged. Afghan President Hamid Karzai recently asked for an additional $15 billion in aid. Increased aid and a broader peace-keeping mandate could help solve some of Afghanistan’s problems. But more dollars channeled to the federal government could also trigger a violent contest among tribal chieftains for control of the kitty.

By and large, securing Afghanistan boils down to managing these chieftains. And here, America’s political and military goals have conflicted. Most political efforts have been geared toward fortifying Mr. Karzai’s rule. But the U.S. military has dealt with tribal chieftains, first to oust the Taliban, and subsequently for help in finding terrorists and thwarting their efforts to find refuge. This has heightened tribal leaders’ sphere of influence. To the degree NATO can make political and military goals more symmetrical, it could become more successful.

This will require an adjustment in expectations and strategy. Establishing order will hinge on regional autonomy and establishing democracy incrementally. The international community’s goal of holding democratic elections next year looks too ambitious. Instead, donor countries should facilitate peacekeepers’ tasks by gearing aid to first establish order and quell violence, subsequently deliver crucial services and ultimately usher in democracy.

This can be achieved by establishing an incentives-based aid program, where regions would receive greater aid by establishing order, a recognizable rules or law-based structure and respect for women and ethnic, religious minorities. Tribal chieftains would presumably profit from, or at least highly influence, aid, but their cooperation would be co-opted. Those regions that attract minorities through their equitable treatment will receive more aid to cover greater needs.

The United States and NATO have a great stake in bringing Afghanistan stability. If the alliance is successful, it could embark on similar missions in the future. Already, NATO defense ministers are discussing the possibility of playing some role in the Middle East peace process.

The key to the alliance’s success in Afghanistan will be preparation. Defense ministers in Brussels today certainly have their work cut out for them.

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