NATO's Challenge

NATO's future is riding on what happens in Afghanistan.

The collapse of the Soviet Union robbed NATO of its raison d'etre. Its relevance has been open to debate ever since. This weekend's NATO summit in Istanbul proved that the alliance isn't going anywhere soon, but the question remains whether it can satisfactorily complete its latest role as a nation-building partner in the war on terror. As the New York Times observes, the alliance's mission in Afghanistan "should have been a chance for NATO to demonstrate its military relevance in the post-cold-war world." So far, it's not looking good.

The most important announcement at the Istanbul summit was NATO's decision to increase the number of its Afghanistan contingent from 6,500 to 10,000. The Bush administration hyped up NATO's offer to train the Iraqi security forces, but as NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop admitted to the Times, "How this training will be worked out I do not know yet." It is not clear how many soldiers NATO will send and given the high likelihood that some of this training will take place outside Iraq, this is hardly a feat of international diplomacy.

NATO has had some post-Cold War success. It secured the peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina (though that mission is scheduled to be handed over to EU forces). Outside of Europe, its role is less clear. Not that the Bush administration hasn't tried to keep it busy. President Bush, of course, has not gotten what he really wanted -- NATO troops in Iraq –- because France and Germany made it clear that they had no intention of sending their troops to clean up his mess. French President Jacques Chirac bluntly told reporters in Istanbul: "I do not believe it is [NATO's] mission to intervene in Iraq." So the administration has had to settle with using the alliance to help train the Iraqi police.

However, Afghanistan remains squarely in NATO's portfolio -- and it is on the brink of failure. It is hoped that that the additional troops will help NATO establish more of a presence outside the capital of Kabul -- the only area the central government really controls. But this increase is hardly sufficient if the presidential elections scheduled for this fall are to go off without a hitch. Indeed, the announced troop increase is several thousand short of what the U.N. and the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai say is needed to establish security in the country. As Sam Zarifi of Human Rights Watch told the Christian Science Monitor:

"If the elections don't take place because of insecurity, or if they... are not free and fair, the blame will rest squarely on the heads of the U.S. and its NATO allies….The Istanbul summit is NATO's last real chance to show that it takes its responsibilities toward the people of Afghanistan seriously."

With a few days to register remaining, only half of eligible voters in Afghanistan are signed up to vote. Worse, some of those who are registered, as well as those who've done the registering, have become terror targets. As news of NATO's commitment to bolster its troop numbers in Afghanistan made headlines, so did the murder of 16 Afghans targeted simply because they were registered to vote. In a separate incident, two female campaign workers were assassinated. These are not random incidents or minor roadblocks on the road to Afghan democracy. They are reminders of the systematic lack of security in Afghanistan. The resurgence of warlords, the narcotics trade, and the Taliban threaten even the semblance of stability established in Kabul.

For a brief moment, Afghanistan was at the forefront of President Bush's war on terror, but has since become a neglected stepchild, forgotten in Iraq's shadow. As Peter Bergen points out in "The Wrong War," Mother Jones's cover story this month:

Today, only 20,000 U.S. troops are stationed in Afghanistan, a country the size of Texas and nearly 50 percent larger than Iraq, where 140,000 U.S. troops haven't been enough to create stability. Kathy Gannon, who has covered Afghanistan for the past 16 years for the Associated Press, says that the security situation is "as bad as it's ever been" -- and that includes the years during and before the Taliban reign. The power of regional warlords has surged, challenging Hamid Karzai's central government and creating space for the Taliban to quietly emerge from the shadows. Taliban leader Mullah Omar and military commander Jalaluddin Haqqani both remain at large, as does Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a Pashtun warlord whose forces are regularly engaging U.S. soldiers. Meanwhile, Afghanistan has become the world's largest source of opium, the raw material for heroin. The country is now one of the world's leading narco-states, and money from the $2.3 billion drug trade is reportedly making its way into Al Qaeda's coffers. According to Barnett Rubin, a senior fellow at New York University and an authority on the region, Afghanistan is "obviously in danger of reverting to a failed state."

Considering that the war in Afghanistan was the one which the U.S. and the Europe (both "old" and "new") could agree on, it is ironic that this trans-Atlantic consensus has not translated into a coherent strategy on the ground.

NATO can rightfully take credit for stopping bloodshed in the Balkans. Its new and prospective members from Central and Eastern European states, meanwhile, guarantee the alliance's expansion. Russia is unlikely to join NATO, but it hasn't stopped the ex-Soviet Baltic states from joining, and it is part of NATO's Partnership for Peace program. This week, NATO offered to extend its military ties with Israel, Egypt, and Jordan. In short, NATO is not lacking in members or partners; its survival is not in question. What is in question is its success in Afghanistan and by extension, its effectiveness in coping with its post-Cold War mandate to combat terrorism. What could be a better testament to NATO's enduring relevance than to ensure that Afghanistan does not, once again, become a failed state?