American Outlook | 1.1.11
By Alan W. Dowd
Leaving Afghanistan now—or anytime soon—“would be a mistake of historic proportions,” according to NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who warns that a precipitous withdrawal would pave the way for civil war, embolden extremists, and give al-Qaeda “a haven from which to plan terrorism attacks on a global scale.” If Rasmussen has anything to say about it, “NATO will stay the course.”
However, Rasmussen doesn’t have the authority to force NATO to do anything its political leaders—all 28 of them—don’t agree to do. And so NATO’s commitment to, and footprint in, Afghanistan is starting to shrink. As several members of the alliance head toward the exit in 2011, now seems like an appropriate time to examine the causes and consequences of NATO’s halfhearted intervention in Afghanistan.
To be fair, every member of the alliance wants to leave Afghanistan. And after nearly a decade of warfare, nation building, and counterinsurgency, that’s understandable. The problem is this: some NATO members are more concerned about getting out of Afghanistan than about what NATO leaves behind in Afghanistan.
Quitting Afghanistan without (1) weakening the Taliban insurgency to a level where it doesn’t threaten the central government and/or (2) building up government forces to a level where they can smother Taliban flare-ups would have the same effect as what happened the last time the West abandoned Afghanistan. It pays to recall that after the defeat of the Red Army, Afghanistan was considered unimportant to the West—until September 11, 2001. “Failure would also damage the credibility of NATO,” according British Defense Secretary Liam Fox. “We would be less safe and less secure, our resolve called into question and our cohesion weakened.”
Regrettably, that’s already happened. As of this writing, all of NATO’s 28 members technically have troops in Afghanistan. However, several are token contingents—some in the single digits—that serve no military purpose. It’s sad and a bit embarrassing that non-NATO members Australia, Georgia, and Sweden have more troops deployed than Belgium, Iceland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, and Portugal—all founding members of the alliance.
Rasmussen once called the Dutch mission to Afghanistan “the benchmark for others.” Sadly, that appears to be all too true now that the Dutch are withdrawing. Italy, for example, plans to begin pulling out its forces next summer. France wants to speed up the handover of its area of responsibility. And Canada will withdraw its combat forces by mid-2011. Although Canada will leave 950 military trainers in Afghanistan, the training mission “will occur in classrooms behind the wire on bases,” according to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper (CBC News, “Tories Confirm Afghan Mission Details,” November 16, 2010).
Expressing support for NATO’s mission actually cost Horst Köhler the Germany presidency. After Köhler benignly declared, “Military deployments are necessary in an emergency to protect our interests,” he was forced by public pressure to resign as president (Judy Dempsey, “German President Quits over Remarks on Military,” New York Times, May 31, 2010). It pays to recall that Köhler was talking about a nation-building operation authorized by the United Nations—an operation that began because Afghanistan spawned an armed attack against a NATO member. That attack led NATO to unanimously invoke Article V—the alliance’s all-for-one collective defense clause—for the first time ever.
Pleading for the Fifth
Obviously, some NATO members don’t take Article V as seriously as others. If they did, they wouldn’t be quitting before completing the mission, and they wouldn’t put limits on where their forces can go or what they can do to carry out the mission. Known as the “caveat” rule within NATO, this practice of permitting member states with military forces in Afghanistan to opt out of certain missions strikes at the very heart of the alliance’s effectiveness and cohesiveness. After all, an ally that promises to help only when the guns are quiet, only where the scenery is serene, is not much of an ally.
Yet that is an accurate description of what some allies have done. Reuters reports that caveats have been used by Germany, Italy, and Spain to steer clear of Afghanistan’s restive south. Others have played the caveat card to block the deployment of personnel near Pakistan. Denmark recently refused a request for additional F-16 jets. Equally troubling, Italy doesn’t permit its fighter-bombers in Afghanistan to carry bombs, according to Reuters (October 13, 2010). German forces, until recently, were required to shout warnings to enemy forces—in three languages—before opening fire.
Finally, NATO members have repeatedly failed to deliver when it comes to troop deployments. In 2006, alliance members contributed only 85 percent of the forces pledged. In 2007, Canada threatened to withdraw its forces if other NATO members didn’t pitch in more troops. And today, NATO’s effort to build an Afghan security force is in jeopardy because the alliance is a thousand trainers short.
All of this has validated Washington’s initial wariness about involving NATO in Afghanistan. Although America’s very closest allies assisted in the early phases of the war in Afghanistan, it wasn’t until 2003 that Washington enlisted NATO to take control of the UN-authorized International Security Assistance Force (commonly known as ISAF).
The United States kept NATO at arm’s length at the outset of the war, largely because waging war by committee proved so difficult during the 1999 Kosovo campaign, which saw Greece and Italy call for bombing pauses, Germany publicly reject Britain’s suggestion of a ground attack, France veto sensitive targets, and a British general openly disobey the American commander’s deployment orders.
Consequently, as a NATO publication observed in 2002, “The United States did not have sufficient confidence in the alliance to give it a major role” in Afghanistan. This left some in Europe to conclude that Washington didn’t take Article V seriously. More than eight years later, the feeling is mutual.
“We must not—we cannot—become a two-tiered alliance of those who are willing to fight and those who are not,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned last year, adding that such a development “would in effect destroy the alliance.” But if the Afghanistan mission is any indication, the alliance is already two-tiered when it comes to commitment, with the Americans, British, and Canadians doing most of the fighting and dying. These three nations account for 81 percent of the NATO force in Afghanistan; the United States accounts for 71 percent, according to ISAF.
The alliance is also two-tiered when it comes to the assets needed to wage war in the 21st century. That’s because the United States invests in defense. The rest of NATO, by and large, does not. As Gates observed at the National Defense University (February 23, 2010), while the United States spends about 4 percent of its GDP on the common defense—a GDP that is enormous relative to that of its NATO allies—only five NATO members muster the will to meet the alliance’s set standard of investing 2 percent of GDP on defense. In other words, large countries such as Turkey (1.8 percent), Canada (1.3 percent), Germany (1.3 percent), Italy (1.3 percent), and Spain (1.2 percent) simply haven’t lived up to one of the main responsibilities of NATO membership, according to NATO data (February 19, 2009). Even Britain, America’s nearest technological peer within NATO, invested only 2.9 percent of GDP on defense in 2010.
That figure will plummet in the coming years, as Britain slashes defense spending. The British army is shrinking from 102,000 to 95,000, Britain’s fleet of destroyers and frigates will be cut from 23 to just 10 ships, tanks and artillery are being slashed by 40 percent, and entire squadrons of warplanes will be retired. Britain and France are so focused on defense-spending cuts that they just agreed to alternate deployment of a shared aircraft carrier (John Burns, “British Military Expands Links to French Allies,” New York Times, November 2, 2010).
It’s easy to understand why Gates has warned of the “demilitarization of Europe.” According to Gates, “Funding and capability shortfalls make it difficult to operate and fight together to confront shared threats.” If you doubt this, look no further than Afghanistan. Most NATO members have to hitch a ride with the U.S. Air Force or rent Soviet-era transports to deploy to Afghanistan; they “are not trained in counterinsurgency,” in the blunt words of Gates; and they lack helicopters to move across the mountainous country. In 2009, for instance, the Brits had just 30 helicopters to support their entire Afghan force of 9,100 troops (John Burns, “Scarcity of Copters Fuels British Debate over War,” New York Times, July 16, 2009).
None of this is to say that NATO has outlived its usefulness. No matter what happens in Afghanistan, NATO will continue to fulfill its enduring, central purpose of defending the transatlantic community.
Moreover, NATO represents a readymade structure where Washington can build coalitions of the willing, a vital bridge to global hotspots, a force-multiplier for U.S. power. But given NATO’s record in Afghanistan, it seems unlikely that the alliance will engage in this sort of mission—one that’s so far from home, so open-ended and so seemingly unimportant to its European members—anytime soon.
Just as Kosovo exposed the technological and bureaucratic obstacles to waging war by committee, just as Iraq highlighted the dramatic differences in how Old Europe and the New World perceive threats, perhaps Afghanistan is teaching us that there are limits—time, geographic, political, economic—to what an alliance of 28 sovereign democracies can do.
As former NATO secretary general Manfred Woerner counseled at the end of the Cold War, “The United States should not expect others to deliver much.”
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, “Remembering the lessons of 9/11 in Afghanistan,” Washington Post, September 11, 2010.
Liam Fox, “Our Mission in Afghanistan,” Wall Street Journal, June 28, 2010.
ISAF, Troop Contributing Nations, October 25, 2010.
Nicolas Delaunay, “Dutch troops to leave Afghanistan,” AFP, July 29, 2010.
Reuters, “Czech house approves more troops for Afghanistan,” November 3, 2010.
Yaroslav Trofimov, “NATO seeks unity on Kabul,” Wall Street Journal, November 2, 2010.
CBC News, “Tories confirm Afghan mission details,” November 16, 2010.
Judy Dempsey, “German President Quits Over Remarks on Military,” New York Times, May 31, 2010.
Roger Boyes, “New Rules Let Germans in Afghanistan Stop Shouting and Start Shooting,” Times of London, July 29, 2009.
Reuters, “Italy cautious on using bomber jets in Afghanistan,” Oct 13, 2010.
Stanley R. Sloan, “Crisis response,” NATO Review, Spring 2002.
Robert Gates, Remarks at the National Defense University, February 23, 2010.
John Burns, “British Military Expands Links to French Allies,” New York Times, November 2, 2010.
John Burns, “Scarcity of Copters Fuels British Debate Over War,” New York Times, July 16, 2009.
Alistair MacDonald, “UK Readies Cuts in Defense Outlays,” Wall Street Journal, October 17, 2010.
NATO, Financial and Economic Data Relating to NATO Defense, February 19, 2009.