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Is Afghanistan NATO's Graveyard?

The transatlantic alliance may be doomed.

| Tue Sep. 29, 2009 4:14 PM EDT

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

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 victim.

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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'être 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).

Tragedy 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.

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