Bad Investments

What’s the point of paying allies to provide marginal contributions to the war on terror?

It's always better not to fight alone. Presumably that's why Washington has paid small states to fight on America's behalf. Alas, it's a wasteful policy which has encouraged countries to neglect their own defense. The Obama administration is continuing to expand U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Yet the military is stretched: American personnel have been in battle and on occupation duty continually since late 2001. Military outlays run roughly $700 billion and, adjusted for inflation, exceed spending at any point during the Korean, Vietnam and Cold Wars.

Moreover, international support for America's wars is ebbing. Although Washington enjoyed more backing for attacking Afghanistan than invading Iraq, fatigue is affecting America's closest allies. Countries like Canada intend to withdraw their contingents and even heretofore steadfast Great Britain is debating its commitment.

In an attempt to pump up the number of allied personnel, Washington plans to rent support from a gaggle of small states which have contributed about 1,300 troops, or about one percent, of the total troops in Afghanistan.

The Pentagon currently runs a $350 million program to improve anti-terrorism capabilities of allied powers. Much of the money has been earmarked for Yemen, a source of terrorist attacks on the United States.

Another $50 million is being directed to Croatia, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Latvia and Lithuania. Exactly what they have to do with terrorism is less clear, since none of them has ever been targeted by al-Qaeda.

The money will mostly go to purchase equipment, with some funds spent on training to deal with roadside explosives. The Pentagon rejects charges that the money is "bribery," but it's hard to see what else Washington is buying.

Rick Nelson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies argues: "at the end of the day, we're asking these allies to join us and we want them to be valuable partners. And some lack the resources to be partners in ways we need them to do so."

Why, however, does the United States want Croatia, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Latvia, and Lithuania as partners in Afghanistan? Not to be unkind, but why bother? None are serious military powers offering serious military forces. Most embarrassing was the Bush administration's "Coalition of the Willing," a group of 49 supposedly essential allies which backed the war in Iraq.

Six didn't even have a military. Another 39 contributed nothing to the war. Among the global leaders backing up America were Albania, El Salvador, Eritrea, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Tonga, and Uzbekistan. Only Australia, Denmark, Great Britain, and Poland contributed military forces, and only Britain's contingent was substantial.

Aid money flowed freely, however. Salon's Laura McClure talked of the "Coalition of the Billing."

The shameless effort to buy political cover for the George W. Bush administration brought to mind President George H.W. Bush's campaign to win support for his war against Iraq. Egypt, Iran, Syria, and Zaire all received aid, debt forgiveness or other economic benefits to win their support.

Secretary of State James Baker told Yemen's UN ambassador after voting against the Security Council resolution authorizing war against Iraq in October 1990: "That was the most expensive ‘no' vote you ever cast." The United States immediately suspended a $70 million aid program. (Since then Yemen has become an expensive client state hooked on Washington's money.)

A number of nations subsequently contributed occupation troops, with a few European states providing low thousands. Most of the contingents barely registered, however: 24 Moldovans, 29 Kazakhs, 40 Estonians, 46 Armenians, 51 Filipinos, 55 Tongans, 61 Kiwis, and 77 Macedonians. Iceland provided two soldiers. Some countries, including Mongolia, Romania, Latvia, El Salvador, Singapore, Bulgaria, Azerbaijan, Albania, Czech Republic, Honduras, Nicaragua, Thailand, Dominican Republic, Portugal, Hungary, Norway, Lithuania, and Slovakia at least broke three digits. Japan provided 600 people, but they were not allowed to defend themselves: Danish and Australian personnel had to guard the Japanese "soldiers."

This was politics disguised as military assistance.

The practice is being repeated in Afghanistan. Ten countries-eight European states along with Canada and Turkey-break four figures, most on the low side. Another 18, all Europeans other than Georgia and New Zealand, have provided contingents numbering in the three digits.

Then there are the true behemoths: 95 from Finland, 90 from Azerbaijan, 70 from Slovenia, 40 from Armenia, 40 from Singapore, 25 from United Arab Emirates, 15 from Greece, 10 from Bosnia and Herzegovina, 9 from Luxembourg, 8 from Ukraine, 7 from Ireland, 6 from Jordan, 4 from Iceland, 4 from Montenegro, and 3 from Austria.

Small contingents like these obviously are of marginal value, especially since most countries place a variety of "caveats," or restrictions, on the use of their personnel. Figuring out what to do with a handful of people who aren't supposed to be anywhere near gun shots in the midst of a war isn't always easy.

This doesn't mean that members of small contingents don't sometimes die. However, personal heroics cannot rescue missions undertaken far more for political than military purposes. Washington is prepared to pay almost any price to avoid standing alone internationally, irrespective of the military value.