Specters at the NATO Summit

Obama and NATO promised Afghanistan a "stable future." But can they deliver? 

Afghanistan is certain to top NATO’s agenda when it meets in Chicago this weekend.

NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a former Danish prime minister and staunch supporter of the United States, has stated that the summit will look ahead—beyond the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and U.S. withdrawal of combat forces in 2014—to the task of enabling Afghanistan to “achieve a stable future.”

Rasmussen’s goal is a worthy one, and echoes that of the Obama administration, for whom the summit is meant to be yet another example of competent security-policy management. Some sixty countries (though not Israel, which was vetoed by Turkey) will head to the president’s hometown for the largest NATO confab ever held.

No doubt the hoopla around the Loop will provide much grist for the president’s campaign mill. Nevertheless, all is not sweetness and light; the specter of Europe’s ongoing troubles, including a possible return to the drachma by NATO member Greece, will cast a pall over the festivities. Some analysts are arguing, as no doubt the administration wishes, that the fate of the euro zone not be an issue at the summit. But surely it will haunt the proceedings, and it is likely to undermine whatever promises NATO makes to itself about providing training and funding for Afghan forces and the Afghan economy beyond 2014.

The backlash against European austerity is gaining momentum, with the election of the socialist Francois Hollande (who is not keen on leaving French troops in Afghanistan beyond 2013), the SDP-Green coalition’s victory in North Rhine-Westphalia (Germany’s most populous state) and recent Labour victories in Britain’s local elections. More spending is unlikely to mean more defense spending, much less spending billions more on Afghanistan. On the contrary, the European Left has very little residual interest in that country, other than to press for the complete withdrawal of foreign troops, combat or otherwise, as soon as possible.

Despite Europe’s economic malaise and its shifting political winds, Washington should press for commitments from its NATO allies and other ISAF partners to persevere in Afghanistan for as long as America does. In one sense, the administration will be pushing against an open door: NATO is likely to commit itself to supporting America’s plans, as it usually does. But that does not mean it will do anything about them. Indeed, America’s NATO partners have a long and undistinguished history of failing to meet their commitments: the 1952 Lisbon force proposals that were never met; the agreement to devote 3 percent of national gross domestic product to defense spending that was never realized; the incessant commitments to interoperability that somehow are always pushed off into the future.

It is indeed wonderful that a number of smaller allies, such as Albania, are prepared to keep their troops in Afghanistan for as long as America does. The fact is most major NATO contributions have already been pared back. Other than the United States, the forces of most states that comprise ISAF number in the hundreds.

President Obama has pledged he will not abandon Afghanistan. To back up that pledge, Washington and Kabul have signed a ten-year agreement that would involve the annual transfer of billions of dollars to Afghanistan for military and police training as well as other forms of support. Yet this latest iteration of what was once called “Vietnamization” may prove to be no more successful than America’s experience in Southeast Asia—particularly if the Congress, responding to a public as sick of the current war as it was of that in Vietnam four decades ago, chooses to cut off funding for Afghanistan. Whether an Obama administration would have the ability or the will to turn back any such congressional impulses remains an open question.

At the end of the day, the president is hamstrung by his commitment to withdraw American combat forces in 2014, regardless of the actual situation on the ground. The Taliban, the Haqqanis and the rest of the evil rabble seeking to undermine Afghan stability have but one objective: they seek to outlast the American combat force. Should they succeed, training and assistance may not prove enough to prevent the collapse of the Kabul government, at which point a disillusioned America may decide to wash its hands of Afghanistan, as it did once before in the 1990s and nearly did from 2003–2006. And should that occur, all as a result of an artificial deadline that became ironclad in December 2009, and that has already been enshrined as NATO policy, the administration will have a lot to answer for—promises at the upcoming NATO summit notwithstanding.

Dov Zakheim served as the undersecretary of defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the U.S. Department of Defense from 2001–2004 and as the deputy undersecretary of defense (planning and resources) from 1985–1987. He was named the DoD's coordinator for Afghan civilian reconstruction in 2004. He is a member of The National Interest's advisory council.