Afghanistan: NATO's Graveyard?

Is the Transatlantic Alliance Doomed?

Celebrating its 60th birthday this year, NATO is looking peaked and significantly worse for wear. Aggressive and
ineffectual, the organization shows signs of premature senility.
Despite the smiles and reassuring rhetoric at its annual summits, its
internal politics have become fractious to the point of dysfunction.
Perhaps like any sexagenarian in this age of health-care crises and
economic malaise, the transatlantic alliance is simply anxious about
its future.

Frankly, it should be.

The painful truth is that NATO may be suffering from a terminal
illness. Its current mission in Afghanistan, the alliance's most
significant and far-flung muscle-flexing to date, might be its last.
Afghanistan has been the graveyard of many an imperial power from the
ancient Macedonians to the Soviets. It now seems to be eyeing its next

For NATO, this year should have been a celebration, not a dirge. After
suffering a transatlantic rift of epic proportions during the Bush
years, the alliance thrilled to the election of Barack Obama and his
politics of conciliation. The new American administration swore it
would shift troops from Iraq to Afghanistan to give NATO more of what
it wanted to fight "the right war." Vice President Joe Biden and
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton both promised to push the "reset
button" on U.S.-Russian relations, potentially removing one of the
greatest obstacles to NATO's health and well-being. And in a final
flourish for the alliance's diamond jubilee, France agreed to return to
the fold, reintegrating into NATO after 43 years of standoffishness.

But hold those celebrations. Afghanistan has an uncanny ability to
spoil anybody's best-laid plans. At the April 2009 NATO summit in
Strasbourg, Obama failed to get the troop reinforcements he wanted from
his European allies. The NATO powers, in any case, have attached so
many strings and caveats to the troops they are supplying -- Germany
has kept its soldiers away from the conflict-ridden south, most
contingents have complex rules limiting combat operations, Canada will
be pulling out in 2011 -- that NATO's mission resembles Gulliver tied
down by the Lilliputians.

The real nail in NATO's coffin, however, has been its stunning lack of
success on the ground. The Taliban has, in fact, not only increased its
hold over large parts of southern Afghanistan, but spread north as
well. Most embarrassingly for NATO, a recent surge of alliance troops
seems only to have made the Taliban stronger. Nearly eight years of alternating destruction (air bombardment, over 100,000 troops on the ground) and reconstruction ($38 billion
in economic assistance appropriated by the U.S. Congress since 2001)
have all come up desperately short. A new counterinsurgency campaign
doesn't look any more promising. What was once billed as the most
powerful military alliance in history has been thwarted by an irregular
set of militias and guerrilla groups without the backing of a major
power in one of the poorest countries on Earth.

Worse yet, the Afghan operation has become a serious political
liability for many NATO members. European politicians fear the kind of
electoral backlash that ousted Britain's Tony Blair and Spain's Jose
Maria Aznar when the Iraq War went south. Despite enthusiasm for Obama,
European public opinion is, by increasingly large margins, in favor of
reducing or withdrawing troops from Afghanistan (55% of West Europeans
and 69% of East Europeans according to a recent German Marshall Fund poll).
Mounting combat fatalities, a rising civilian casualty count, and
devastating snafus like the recent bombing of two fuel trucks stolen by
the Taliban in Kunduz Province that killed many civilians have only
strengthened anti-war feeling.

Meanwhile, in the United States, both elite and public opinion is
turning against the war. With the American economy still reeling from
recession, President Obama faces a guns-vs-butter dilemma
that threatens to wreck his domestic agenda as surely as the Vietnam
War deep-sixed Lyndon Johnson's Great Society reforms of the 1960s. No
surprise then that the president is ambivalent about following his top
general's request to send yet more U.S. troops to fight in what the
press now calls "Obama's War."

Not so long ago, pundits were calling for a global NATO
that would expand its power and membership to include U.S. partners in
Asia and elsewhere. This hubris has given way to despair and discord.
Although the United States still holds out hope for a NATO that focuses
on global threats like terrorism and nuclear proliferation, other
alliance members would prefer to refocus on the traditional mission of
defending Europe. Add in disagreements between the United States and
its allies over how to approach the Afghan situation and NATO begins to
look more like a rugby scrum than a military alliance.

NATO officials are now scrambling to sort things out, in part by calling the allies together
to debate a new Afghan strategy before the year ends. Meanwhile, NATO's
Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen is preparing a new "strategic concept" that would recode the organization's operating system for the next summit in Lisbon in 2010.

It might be too little, too late. Some U.S. officials are fed up with
what they consider European dilly-dallying about Afghanistan. "We have
been very much disappointed by the performance of many if not most of
our allies," Robert E. Hunter, the U.S. ambassador to NATO during the
Clinton administration, recently said
in testimony before Congress. "Indeed, there are elements within the
U.S. government that are beginning to wonder about the continued value
of the NATO Alliance."

As for the Europeans, they are building up their own independent
military capabilities -- and will continue to do so whether or not NATO
gets its act together. The question is: Will the Afghan War eventually
push the United States and Europe toward an amicable divorce? If so,
the military campaign that was to give NATO a new lease on life and
turn it into a global military force will have proven to be its
ultimate undoing.

Near-Death Experiences

This is NATO's second brush with death since the collective security
organization was founded in 1949 to counter the Soviet Union. Although
it didn't fire a shot during its entire Cold War existence, NATO did
fulfill its mission: to keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and
the Germans down, according to the infamous catechism of Lord Ismay,
NATO's first secretary general.

When the Cold War ended and the Warsaw Pact vanished, NATO was suddenly
an organization without a mission. During the early 1990s, it cast
around for new portfolios -- environmental work, humanitarian missions,
anything. It needed a raison d'etre
fast. After all, the conflict-prevention mission of the Organization
for Security and Co-operation in Europe spoke more directly to the
post-Cold War temperament, and transatlantic publics were eager for
their peace dividends. NATO was seen as a pillar of the old world order
at a time when even President George H.W. Bush seemed prepared to
accept something radically new (though he settled, of course, for a
rough approximation of the status quo ante).

proved NATO's salvation. The organization got a second wind when
Yugoslavia disintegrated into warring states and European governments
did little to prevent the bloodletting in the Balkans. The United
States belatedly turned to NATO in 1995 to fly a few bombing missions
against Serbian forces during the Bosnian conflict. Then, in 1999,
responding to fears of Serbian escalation in Kosovo, NATO engaged in
its first-ever war. During the 77-day conflict, the alliance conducted
38,000 air sorties against Serbian targets that resulted in
considerable "collateral" damage including Serbian civilians, Albanian
refugees, and, famously, the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Although no
NATO personnel died during these combat operations, the alliance
acquired a reputation as the gang that couldn't shoot straight.

As if the Balkans weren't rationale enough, NATO also fell back on
an old directive: to keep Russia out. Eastern Europe's persistent fear
of its former overlord injected new purpose into the organization.
Although Russia's leaders believed
that Washington had promised not to expand NATO into Eastern Europe,
the alliance did just that -- and with gusto. First, it established a
kind of alliance halfway house in 1994 that it dubbed the Partnership
for Peace; then, in 1999, NATO accepted the Czech Republic, Hungary,
and Poland as members; and five years after that, it expanded into the
former Soviet Union by absorbing the Baltic states of Latvia,
Lithuania, and Estonia along with Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, and
Slovenia. Russia has, to put it mildly, been less than thrilled by
NATO's eastward leap and then creep. Meanwhile, wary of Russia's
military campaigns in Chechnya, Georgia, and Moldova as well as its energy power plays against countries to its west, the Eastern Europeans have eagerly huddled beneath the NATO "umbrella."

As it happens, neither the Balkan tragedies nor the putative Russian
threat proved to be unalloyed blessings for the alliance. The Balkan
campaigns created enormous stress
for its military command, and only the brevity of the air war over
Kosovo saved it from popular repudiation across Europe. The expansion
of NATO into Eastern Europe, meanwhile, made consensus within an
already unwieldy institution more difficult.

The once central focus of NATO -- a commitment to the collective
defense of any member under attack -- was, by now, looking ever less
workable. Western European countries appeared anything but enthusiastic
about the idea of defending the former Soviet bloc states against a
prospective Russian attack. And despite promises to station troops in
Central and Eastern Europe, the United States left its new NATO allies
in the lurch. "While they are loath to say it publicly, [Central and
Eastern European] leaders have told me that they are no longer certain
NATO is capable of coming to their rescue if there were a crisis
involving Russia," wrote
Ronald Asmus, former deputy assistant secretary of state in the Clinton
administration. "They no longer believe that the political solidarity
exists or that NATO's creaky machinery would take the needed steps."

On the eve of September 11th, a decade after the end of the Cold
War, NATO had become an overstretched alliance with an ill-defined but
expansive mission and a collection of member states increasingly at
odds with each other. When the United States prepared to attack
Afghanistan and then Iraq, the Bush administration simply bypassed
NATO, constructing its own ad hoc
coalitions "of the willing." (Only in 2003 did the Bush administration
turn to NATO to shoulder some of the local burden.) There could have
been no greater vote of no-confidence in the institution.

The Afghan Test Case

Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. troop presence in Europe has
been plummeting. From a Cold War peak of several hundred thousand, it
had dropped to around 44,000 by 2007. Reductions to the 30,000-level or
even lower have been discussed.
With U.S. forces stretched to the limit elsewhere in the world and U.S.
strategists fixated on the energy heartlands of the Middle East and
Central Asia, the European theater of operations has been (and remains)
the obvious place for force reductions.

Washington will certainly continue to maintain key military bases in
the United Kingdom, Italy, and Germany and has been setting up new ones
in Bulgaria, Romania, and Kosovo (that just happen to be closer to the
energy resources of Eurasia and the Middle East). Turkey and possibly
the Balkans are slated to become important locations for a more
advanced version of the missile defense system that President Obama
recently canceled for Poland and the Czech Republic, bases which once
figured prominently in the Bush administration's plans for Europe. In
sum, U.S. forces and resources once available to NATO's European
operations have been rapidly dwindling.

At the same time, in the Bush years Washington chose to push the
alliance to expand beyond its traditional focus on Europe and think
global, focusing on terrorism, piracy, nuclear proliferation, and other
international threats. In this way, the United States imagined that it
might be able to place some of the financial burden for its own
self-appointed global mission on its European allies. The Afghan War
and reconstruction effort, an out-of-area operation with global
significance, was clearly to be the test case for Washington's version
of a new and improved NATO.

On the other hand, the newest members of the alliance from Eastern and
Central Europe wanted the focus to remain on threats to Europe itself
(that is, to them). They continued to be purely Russia-focused. The
leadership in Poland and the Czech Republic, in particular, were eager
for the recently canceled missile defense bases not because they
particularly believed in, or cared about, missile defense per se,
or feared a future Iranian first strike, but because they were eager
for proof of Washington's willingness to counter Moscow. For these
Europe Firsters, Afghanistan has been nothing but a distraction from
the essential mission of keeping the Russian bear at arm's length.

This, then, is the tug of war within NATO: between the Europe First
faction and the Go Global faction. Oddly, both sides appear on the
verge of falling into the mud. Now that the Obama administration is
making nice with Russia, the Europe Firsters don't have a threat to
stand on. For the Go Global faction, meanwhile, victory within NATO
requires victory within Afghanistan, which is why, in 2007, future
AfPak czar Richard Holbrooke declared that "Afghanistan represents the ultimate test for NATO."

If Afghanistan is the test, then NATO is flunking. The Taliban has made
a steady comeback since its rout in 2001. More American soldiers, as
well as more soldiers from the other coalition partners, have already died in 2009 than in any of the previous eight years. The number of civilian casualties -- 2008 was a record year and 2009 will likely break that record -- fly in the face of NATO's "responsibility to protect" guidelines. There aren't anywhere near
the number of troops necessary for an effective counterinsurgency
campaign, if such a thing were even possible in distant Afghanistan,
and what troops are there have proven ill-trained for "hearts and minds" work. Nor are there sufficient Afghan troops trained,
almost eight years after the initial invasion of that country, to
"Afghanize" the NATO side of the conflict. As for the grander projects
of democracy promotion and nation-building, Afghanistan's rudimentary
economy remains heavily dependent on opium poppy production and its
political system suffers from rampant corruption of which the
irregularities of the most recent presidential election represent only
the tip of the malfeasance.

No wonder, then, that the Europeans are thinking seriously about how
to get out. After a suicide attack in Kabul killed six Italian
paratroopers in mid-September, for instance, Prime Minister Silvio
Berlusconi announced
that "we must bring our boys home as soon as possible." The war also
suddenly became a major issue in Germany on the eve of national
elections when a German commander called in U.S. air strikes on those
two stolen fuel trucks in Kunduz. The attack, which killed an unknown
number of Afghan civilians, has driven home to the German public that
its mission in Afghanistan qualifies as neither a humanitarian nor a
stabilization effort, and anti-war sentiment is rising accordingly.
Moreover, the bombing has caused an unusual upsurge
in bickering between Germany and the United States over responsibility
for the incident and overall strategy. Just over the summer, the
British lost 40 soldiers in the conflict, and a majority of Britons now want their troops withdrawn right away, which is likely to mean that the government's reported decision to send yet another 1,000 troops to Afghanistan will go down very poorly indeed with the voters.

How can NATO go global when it can't even pass its first major test in
Afghanistan? "It is of course possible that NATO can survive
Afghanistan even in the absence of total success: it depends on the
extent of its failure," Danish security analysts Jens Ringsmose and
Sten Rynning have written. "What seems certain is that failure in the Hindu Kush will constitute a serious blow to global NATO."

With NATO having to downscale, like the rest of us in these
recessionary times, forget the notion that the alliance should mount
out-of-area operations, argues
former U.S. diplomat David T. Jones for the conservative think tank
Foreign Policy Research Institute. "Aggression, terrorism, piracy, and
human rights debacles need be addressed, but NATO is not the hammer for
these nails. The United States needs to be more discerning about using
this stiletto to chop wood. A 'coalition of the willing' is a tarnished
term, but NATO is verging on becoming a coalition of the unwilling."

"NATO often seems to be an organization that is permanently in crisis,
but it always seems to bounce back," argues Ian Davis of NATO Watch.
"This is partly because collective defense/security solutions continue
to make sense, not least to: prevent a renationalization of defense in
Europe; to lock-in U.S. administrations (as far as possible) to
multilateral and law-based approaches; and to provide sufficient
security guarantees to enable nuclear disarmament to proceed, and for
likely recessionary conventional disarmament to take place without
causing instability." But will these workaday goals be enough to keep
the institution afloat?

Fine-Tuning the Prime Directive

In 2010, NATO will update its prime directive for the first time in
a decade, and the Go Global faction will battle with the Europe
Firsters for the driver's seat. Neither group is likely to gain enough
power within the organization to steer it alone. Undoubtedly, a
compromise will emerge. For instance, Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former
U.S. national security adviser and consummate geopolitician, argues in
a recent Foreign Affairs essay
that NATO should focus on building security relationships with the
world. In this scenario, NATO emerges as more of a grand facilitator
than a robust fighting force. If, on the other hand, Afghanistan truly
takes the fight out of NATO, the more radical proposals of the Citizens Declaration of Alliance Security,
which calls for a more defensive military posture at lower levels of
spending, while restricting out-of-area operations to U.N.-authorized
missions, might come into play.

All institutions have a strong survival instinct, if only to continue
providing salaries to their employees. NATO will surely outlive its
strategic planning process, its failures in Afghanistan, and its
adjustment to new global threats. But it may survive in name only. If
it shrinks to the role of grand facilitator or U.N. handmaiden, it will
have effectively ceased to be a transatlantic collective security
organization. The United States will then lean toward ad hoc coalitions to achieve its military objectives, while Europe build ups its independent military power.

Initially, Europe began to beef up its collective military capabilities
to acquire a voice in the international community commensurate with its
economic power, as well as to send a not-so-subtle message to the
unilateralist Bush administration. Today, the European Union maintains
two rapid-deployment battle groups of 1,500 soldiers each and expects,
in the near future, to pull together another 10 or so battle groups
from existing national armies. These forces have already conducted
missions in more than 20 countries. Europe's military-industrial
complex, meanwhile, is trying to push up military budgets and
aggressively market European arms in overseas markets. All of this
still represents a far cry from what NATO commands, but a signal is
certainly being sent: if the United States thinks it can go it alone --
or simply dragoon the alliance into its own version of a global mission
-- Europe will have options.

Even at 60, NATO hasn't quite proven that it can live on its own in a
sustainable and responsible manner. Indeed, it is still struggling with
a Hamlet-like identity crisis: to attack or not to attack. The Afghan
war has only underscored this central paradox. If the alliance doesn't
engage in military operations, everyone questions its ultimate purpose.
But if it does go to war -- and the war is unsuccessful -- everyone
questions its ultimate efficacy.

Damned if it does and damned if it doesn't, NATO will limp along much
as the British and Soviet empires did after their misadventures in
Central Asia. These were, after all, dead empires walking. NATO may be
in this category as well. It just doesn't know it yet.

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