As NATO members prepare to celebrate the alliance’s 60th anniversary next month, many observers on both sides of the Atlantic have been warning that Afghanistan is a critical test that NATO must pass if it is to adapt successfully to the 21st century. Unfortunately, as an alliance, NATO has already failed in Afghanistan. And President Obama’s decision to add 17,000 additional troops to the conflict is a signal that the re-Americanization of the warfighting effort has begun.
There is plenty of blame to go around for the situation NATO finds itself in as it confronts a dangerous insurgency in Afghanistan. The allies invoked Article V, the collective defense pledge that lies at NATO’s core, in solidarity with the United States after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Rather than run the initial Afghanistan operation through NATO, however, as the United States had done in 1999 in Kosovo, the Bush administration chose to put together a coalition of the willing.
Only in 2003, as the administration became mired in the postwar reconstruction in Iraq, did the United States ask NATO to play a substantial role, taking over the International Security Assistance Force that then provided for peacekeeping in the Afghan capital, Kabul. By then, Europe had grown resentful of American policies, undermining alliance solidarity.
Over time, the need for the alliance to do more increased dramatically, as the Taliban regained its strength throughout significant parts of the country. But NATO has been unable as a group to respond militarily. Only a handful of countries other than the United States, namely the United Kingdom, Canada, the Netherlands, Denmark, and non-NATO member Australia, are able to send troops into the dangerous areas of the south and east.
The other countries, including Germany, provide important civilian reconstruction assistance. But while those civilian tasks are necessary, they indicate, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned last month, that NATO is becoming a “two-tiered alliance of those who are willing to fight and those who are not.”
There are many organizations, including the European Union and the United Nations, that can provide assistance with civilian reconstruction. NATO’s role as a military alliance in Afghanistan should be primarily to conduct counterinsurgency operations.
There are two possible reasons that most NATO members are not able to join the fight:
(1) They might have the capacity but do not believe this conflict warrants their participation in military combat.
(2) Or they do not have the capacity.
Unfortunately, both are true.
European publics simply do not believe that the fight in Afghanistan is worth losing lives. And because they would oppose their troops going into battle, most parliaments are unwilling to provide the necessary support for doing so. Thus many NATO forces are confined to their bases. But even if these countries did support fighting the Taliban and rooting out al Qaeda, what could their militaries actually do?
On paper, Europe has huge numbers of soldiers, but only a tiny percentage of them are in fact deployable in combat. The continued U.S. investments since the end of the Cold War, and the training U.S. forces continue to receive, mean the capabilities gap has widened further and further in the two decades since the Berlin Wall fell.
The real work facing NATO is not the preparations for the April 3-4 celebration. The real work comes after, as NATO moves forward on a new strategic concept that will define the alliance’s purpose going forward.
Are counterinsurgency operations far from NATO territory where its future lies? If so, NATO members must be willing to commit themselves both to the idea of fighting in these conflicts and developing the means to do so. If not, and NATO merely reaffirms its role in providing security within Europe, the United States will grow less interested in investing in the alliance and will simply try to put together ad hoc coalitions to deal with the crises that will inevitably arise in other parts of the globe threatening our common security.