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Slipping into darkness

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With elections in Pakistan two days ago, John McCain's emergence as the presumptive Republican presidential candidate and the political dogfight between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for Democratic nominee swirling, there is much to write about. Why then return to Afghanistan? President Bush believes we, along with our NATO allies, are winning there, even if winning may be occurring more slowly than we would like.

The sadder prospect is that "we" — the Karzai government, NATO and the international community engaged in Afghanistan — are not winning. If we persist with this case of self-denial, conditions in Afghanistan will continue to deteriorate and the future of both the Afghan people and NATO cohesion will be bleak. A visit to Brussels and NATO headquarters last week reinforced this gloomy forecast.

On the positive side, NATO has roughly 42,000 troops deployed to Afghanistan under the command of U.S. Army Gen. Dan McNeill in the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF). NATO forces have not lost and will not lose a battle. But military force alone cannot win the war. Only reforms to the civil sector of Afghanistan from countering narcotics and corruption to creating jobs and a fair and functioning judicial and legal system can do that.

NATO's mandate does not extend that far. Indeed, within the alliance, there are profound differences over what it should and should not do regarding the military responsibilities ISAF has assumed. Out of 26 nations, only a few are engaged in actual combat. And Germany has resisted, so far, sending its forces into battle, although a well-placed former senior German official suggests that there may be a change of heart next year. That may be too late.

Within the European Union, NATO's long-term competitor rather than complementary companion, Afghanistan is not a priority reflecting the public mood questioning why NATO has engaged there in the first place. Afghanistan is seen as too distant and remote a land to be a real threat to European security. Hence, the EU focuses on nearby Kosovo and the Balkans and further away on Darfur, Sudan.

It is clear in NATO that given the attitudes of the member states' governments, there is no urgency or even likelihood that NATO would consider an expanded role to fill the huge gap that threatens Afghanistan — the absence of anyone or any organization in charge of coordinating and orchestrating the needed civil sectors reforms and the construction of a stable and relatively peaceful state. The Karzai government's demurral of Lord Paddy Ashdown as U.N. high representative was a further setback to moving forward on civil reforms in the near term.

Three reports on Afghanistan that were released late last month in the United States sounded the alarm and proposed remedial action. All were largely ignored. And NATO staffs were unfamiliar with heated hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee two weeks ago, when senators of both parties expressed extreme frustration over getting evasive answers to tough questions from administration officials.

The opportunity to raise these concerns and get NATO heads of state to focus on the consequences of continuing to treat Afghanistan as the invisible war will come in Bucharest, Romania, in early April at the summit. The chance that that will happen is arguably zero. Six weeks is an impossibly short time to coordinate what would be a major if not profound agreement to discuss Afghanistan with such intensity.

Few member states would be inclined to support this suggestion — with the great majority already atwitter over whether to admit Croatia, Albania and Macedonia to full membership, let alone welcome Ukraine and Georgia into the membership action program — a first step toward joining the alliance sometime well into the future and a step guaranteed to provoke a strong Russian response.

When senior NATO officials speak off the record, their optimism yields to a harsher assessment on Afghanistan. One such senior official heartily agreed with the conclusion of one the aforementioned reports that NATO was indeed losing in Afghanistan because of the failure of action in the civil sector. However, these officials, military and civilian, understand that politicians at home want them to "stay in their lane," ensuring a perpetuation of this cognitive dissonance.

Perhaps the art of the possible at the Bucharest summit is for NATO officials to bite the bullet and, if not confront then cajole the heads of state and their entourages at least to move more quickly with an on-the-ground, no-nonsense assessment of what is happening in Afghanistan across both the security and civil sectors. This may be the last chance for NATO to act. Simply waiting for the U.N. to find and gain approval of a high representative could take more time than Afghanistan has to give before slipping too far into chaos and disrepair.

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