European Affairs

“Make no mistake,” began one of these reports: “NATO is not winning in Afghanistan.” This study, entitled Saving Afghanistan and published by the Washington-based Atlantic Council, emphasized the need for greater progress in civilian reconstruction, at least in areas free of insurgent attack. In the long run, it argued, no amount of Afghan and Western military power can completely defeat the Taliban as long as its fighters can still find a safe haven in neighboring Pakistan.

The need for a major new effort to succeed in Afghanistan was also the theme of recent independent reports by the Afghanistan Study Group and by the National Defense University. All three reports concur that without prompt actions by the United States and its allies, the mission in Afghanistan may fail – causing severe consequences to U.S. strategic interests worldwide, including the war on terrorism, and the future of NATO. The U.S. cannot afford to let Afghanistan continue to be the neglected, or forgotten, war. All said that the Taliban cannot “defeat” NATO, but concluded that a quasi-stalemate would be a very serious blow to the alliance.

These reports described heightened tensions between the conflict’s major players, including leaders in the U.S. and Europe, NATO commanders, and the Afghan government in Kabul. The reports have called into question not only the future success of the Afghan mission, but the future of the alliance itself if it fails in Afghanistan, its first military mission outside Europe.

This “critical importance of succeeding in Afghanistan” was the main theme of a year-long review by the Afghanistan Study Group entitled, Revitalizing our Energies, Reorganizing our Strategies. This panel was organized by David M. Abshire, the former U.S. ambassador to NATO, and co-chaired by Thomas Pickering, a former high official in the State Department and General James L. Jones, the former top military officer of NATO. Calling it a crucial challenge for the alliance, the group listed greater and better international coordination and cooperation as the crucial first step to significant improvement in Afghanistan – improvement that the study said was vital to keep Afghanistan from becoming a failed state.

In a similar vein, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates also made several well-publicized statements questioning the success of the NATO mission and the allies’ collective and individual willingness to bear the necessary costs in Afghanistan. Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee in February, Gates said, “I worry a great deal about the alliance 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. It puts a cloud over the future of the alliance if this is to endure.” Earlier this year, Gates told the Los Angeles Times that he feared some European NATO forces in Afghanistan were not properly trained for modern counter-insurgency war.

In a separate study, retired military leaders from five leading NATO countries called the situation “critical” for NATO in Afghanistan. The short-term challenge shows the need for some radical changes in the alliance to advance to the post-cold war era. The study, Towards a Grand Strategy for an Uncertain World: Renewing Transatlantic Partnership, was signed by five former top chiefs of staff: Germany’s General Klaus Naumann, U.S. General John Shalikashvili, Britain’s Field Marshal The Lord Inge, France’s Admiral Jacques Lanxade, and the Netherlands’ General Henk van den Breemen. For NATO nations to succeed in future, the five men agreed, they must provide adequate resources and share the risks of ground warfare.

Failure to do this in Afghanistan could threaten the credibility and even the survival of the alliance, according to some U.S. officials who have been pressing the case for more European help. But British commanders, while agreeing on the need for more European countries to provide more effective military support, dispute the apocalyptic view that the alliance would crumble if it failed to achieve all its goals in Afghanistan.

The clustered comments and reports highlighted the often-divergent viewpoints of allies who less than five years ago were unanimous in their decision to see NATO take on the mission. At the time, Afghanistan seemed to be a task of post-conflict reconstruction and some institution-building for NATO alongside a separate U.S.-led hunt (with French and British help) for Al-Qaeda terrorists in the Hindu Kush. That was before the Taliban resurgence. Suddenly, NATO found itself facing an insurgency spreading alongside the task of national reconstruction. Caught off balance, the alliance still has not found a consensus about how to recalibrate its approach.

The fundamentally conflicting ideas among different allies about NATO’s role in Afghanistan were clearly delineated in a report published in January by the Congressional Research Service, an analytical arm of the U.S. Congress. The allies largely agree on the mission’s ultimate goals, the report found. One is strengthening the government in Kabul and extending its authority. Another is rebuilding the economy, which has been devastated by war and by the drug trade. Thirdly, the military battle has to be won against insurgent guerrilla forces.

But the tactics of how best to accomplish these goals are a source of disagreement among several of the major players. Germany, in particular, has become wary of further combat operations and wants to limit the mission’s military scope. The CRS report cites criticism from other allied officials that German troops refuse to venture into the country’s most violent regions and, in addition, that they have done an inadequate job of training Afghan police, a non-combat task which Berlin agreed to take on. Although Angela Merkel’s coalition government initially showed a strong commitment to military success in Afghanistan, a steady decline in public support for the mission has led to a much more tenuous position in Berlin.

The Netherlands, meanwhile, has moved from initial reluctance to what is now seen as a clear commitment to the NATO mission. Like Germany, though, the Dutch seek to emphasize reconstruction and stabilization rather than combat operations. Their focus has been on the need to engage neighboring countries – Pakistan, India and Iran – in the stabilization effort. The Dutch were the most vocal Western critics of the U.S.’s treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo, and many Dutch continue to object to the overall American approach in Afghanistan that emphasizes security as a precondition for reconstruction and stabilization. The Netherlands has backing from Italy in its focus on stabilization through engaging other governments in the region.

France, another major player in NATO generally and in Afghanistan specifically, has shown somewhat greater willingness to maintain combat operations. Nicolas Sarkozy’s new government has reaffirmed French support of the combat mission, stationed warplanes closer to the theater of operations and stated that France “can make a decisive difference” in the alliance’s campaign. The report noted that the Afghan mission has led France to drop its prior opposition to seeing the alliance pursuing “out-of-area” military expeditions beyond the European region.

The CRS report also discussed the “similar views” of the United States, Canada, and Britain on NATO’s course in Afghanistan. These governments have made defeating the Taliban the centerpiece of their Afghan policy and see counter-terrorism as a major function of NATO troops in the country. They disagree on some important aspects, though – for example, the prospects for reconciling some elements of the insurgency with the Karzai government. (An apparent bid by some British diplomats to open secret talks designed to get Taliban leaders to switch sides led to a clash with President Hamid Karzai and their dismissal from their positions in Afghanistan in late 2007.) Other divergences include whether to arm Afghan militias to combat the Taliban (as has happened in Iraq with Sunni groups arming to fight Al-Qaeda in their regions) and whether some elements of the allies’ combat mission can (or should) be turned over to the Afghan army.

It remains to be seen what long-term effects will result from NATO’s Afghan campaign. Some observers have said direly that if Afghanistan becomes a failed state, NATO will be seen as a failed alliance, perhaps fatally weakened by the mission. Others have dismissed such talk as hyperbole, but this much is certain: If the allies are unable to establish peace and security in the country, it will be their first major military failure, and some degree of fallout will likely be inevitable, if it is not already.

James Leathers is an editorial assistant of European Affairs

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 9, Issue number 1-2 in the Winter/Spring of 2008.