NATO: Going, going...

NATO: Going, going...

Mini Teaser: NATO has an insecure future. Afghanistan will determine if it has one.

by Author(s): Harlan Ullman

Editor's Note: In 2004, several commentators analyzed the future of NATO in the pages of The National Interest. Click here to see what they had to say in "Can NATO Survive Europe?"

IN ITS nearly sixty years of existence, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has often found itself in jeopardy. That is the case today. And Afghanistan is not the only cause célèbre.

NATO, of course, is one of history's great survivors. From Suez in 1956 to the Euromissile crisis 25 years later, and through the Vietnam and (so far) Iraq debacles, the alliance has persevered and often thrived. Following the September 11 attacks, NATO invoked-for the first time-Article 5, considering an attack on one an attack on all. NATO went to war against global terror, and in 2006 it assumed full responsibility for the un International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.

Imagine what NATO's founding fathers would think if they awakened today. NATO's first prolonged ground-combat operations did not take place along the inner-German border against Soviet forces, but in faraway Afghanistan. So, much has changed for the better. However, NATO's future very much hangs in the balance over Afghanistan and other critical and unresolved issues that linger from the Cold War.

Some argue that all alliances ultimately erode and NATO's time may now have come. That is a profoundly mistaken view and, as I argue, NATO has never been more important to promoting stability and security. However, for NATO to remain vibrant and effective, each of the 26 members must be willing to agree to and act on a better defined, clearer and more convincing vision and set of purposes to handle the challenges, dangers and uncertainties of the coming decade. This in turn will demand major changes in forces, capabilities, command structures and rules of engagement-rather than empty promises and ill-defined commitments.

Several realities must inform NATO's thinking. First, NATO has never fully answered the central post-Cold War question of how to sustain a military alliance formed to counter a military threat that no longer exists. Nor has NATO learned how to deal with a Russia many fear is turning against the West, even though the NATO-Russia Council was one mechanism created to facilitate greater integration.

Second, the nature of the threats and dangers to NATO and the world at large has profoundly changed. Jihadi extremism-frequently dismissed as "terrorism" or limited to Al-Qaeda-is an amalgam of ideas and ideologies, wrapped in a perverted interpretation of Islam that seeks political power. It is focused in the Arab and Muslim worlds, where the recruiting base of desperate, humiliated and disenfranchised people numbers in the hundreds of millions. The United States and Europe, of course, are targets as well.

Third, energy, environment and infrastructure protection are now much higher priorities than they were during the Cold War.

Fourth, NATO members have questioned and challenged America's leadership over the Iraq War and its aftermath. A large majority of Europeans hold (to put it politely) an unflattering view of George W. Bush and of the interventionist neoconservative agenda they believe is being imposed either on target states in the Middle East or, de facto, on the alliance. Writing off America until January 2009 is an understandable reaction, albeit one that assumes two years isn't too long to wait.

Fifth, China and India are now important geo-economic players. Whether Asia will replace Europe as the center of geopolitics is a pregnant question but one with a long gestation period. Irrespective, Asia is surely a more dominant region than it was during the Cold War.

Sixth, the proliferation of multilateral institutions and non-governmental organizations-from the UN to the WTO to the G-8 to the EU-competes with and challenges NATO. The EU in particular, with its own military structure, overlaps with NATO. So far the two institutions have been complementary, though that is by no means assured in perpetuity.

During the ground-breaking 2002 summit in Prague, NATO affirmed its commitment to "transformation" and created the NATO Response Force (NRF). The NRF was designed to give NATO an "expeditionary capability", meaning the capability of deploying outside the traditional European theater. Unfortunately, the last two summits-in Istanbul in 2004 and in Riga in November 2006-were not nearly as productive. Riga offered an opportunity to ensure success in Afghanistan. But unfortunately that was left off the agenda.

Where, then, might NATO be headed? As the past is prologue, history is a good starting point.

NATO: Nearly Twenty Years of Transformation

IN THE wake of the Soviet Union's collapse, NATO began a continuing review of strategic concepts that led to an expansion of membership and creation of new means for establishing partnerships, cooperation and dialogue. The Clinton Administration immediately proposed extending the alliance eastward. The Partnership for Peace (PFP) was created, and ultimately the alliance grew from 19 to 26 members. New partnerships, including the Mediterranean Dialogue, the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative and the NATO-Russia Council followed.

NATO's 1999 Strategic Concept described a security environment that remains largely valid today. Instability, terrorism, Weapons of Mass Destruction and the flow of vital resources became the new rationale for the alliance, replacing the defunct Soviet threat. The Prague Summit of 2002 helped institutionalize the major changes.

First, Prague committed the alliance to "transformation", an invention of the Bush Administration. In essence, transformation meant continuous re-evaluation of strategy, tactics and capabilities to stay ahead of a "thinking, agile and adaptive enemy"-against whom the Bush Administration had declared a War on Terror.

Second, NATO committed to establishing a NATO Response Force (NRF) of up to 25,000 troops, readily deployable and sustainable for at least thirty days without resupply. Three aspects of the NRF merit special attention, as they reflect a profound shift in the alliance's missions.

NRF capabilities were "expeditionary", which meant highly mobile and not locked into Cold War-era static defenses. Second, these forces were designed to operate outside NATO's traditional security boundaries in Europe. Finally, the supporting command-and-control structure of the North Atlantic Council (including rules of engagement) had to be changed to permit short-notice response and decision-making to cope with terror and WMD. This represented a fundamental shift away from the Cold War's purposely cumbersome bureaucracy, designed to keep field commanders from taking premature actions that risked nuclear war.

Prague was as dramatic a departure as any in NATO's history. But despite rhetorical support, most member states have not realigned military capability with the promised commitment to cope with out of area operations. As a consequence, the last NATO commander, Marine General James Jones, publicly and repeatedly called for NATO to honor its obligations in Afghanistan where NATO is 2,500 soldiers-and many helicopters and airlifts-short because states have not deployed the promised forces and equipment.

That said, the NRF has been fully stood up and is in place.

NATO in Afghanistan

NATO has bet its future on Afghanistan. By accepting responsibility for ISAF and, more importantly, by sending troops as part of the alliance, NATO made a huge, breathtaking and irreversible commitment. Should the mission fail and Afghanistan not be stabilized, the uproar will be deafening. The alliance is not needed for the defense of Europe and did not work in distant lands. So what is its worth? NATO could dissipate over that.

Adverse conditions in Afghanistan are reversible and, if action is taken now, amenable to political solutions. With appropriate political action, effective stabilization and reconstruction can follow. Afghanistan, unlike Iraq, is largely a tribal society with low levels of religious war.

Soviet occupation devastated the country and dismantled its effective irrigation system. As a result, poppy cultivation, which requires little water, now accounts for 50 to 60 percent of the national GDP. Approximately 80 percent of the population cannot read or write, so it is difficult to jump-start business to combat unemployment.

Eleven non-NATO states have military forces and other assets in the country. Although the UN sponsors the ISAF mandate, no one authority coordinates the reconstruction. Italy has taken responsibility for the legal system, Germany for the police, Britain for counter-narcotics, Japan for demobilization and the United States for the military. The United States succeeded in training 15,000 army soldiers. But the other four projects have floundered so far. In large part, decentralized authority has made it very difficult to encourage, cajole or coerce outside states to carry out these responsibilities. This also applies to the many NGOs operating in Afghanistan.

Regarding the legal system, prosecuting attorneys in Kabul-essential for rooting out corruption-receive about sixty euros per month. A minimum of 200 euros is needed simply to live in the capital. Police have not been trained in sufficient numbers. Counter-narcotics pose profoundly difficult choices. Spraying to destroy the poppy crops, in addition to creating long-term heath problems, deprives a large measure of the population of its livelihood. Many unemployed farmers are already easy recruiting targets for the Taliban. But no alternatives have yet been found.

The porous border with Pakistan remains problematic. The Taliban enjoys safety and support in Pakistan. While more of a nuisance than a strategic threat for the moment, the Taliban is gaining strength. Unless progress is made in the political, economic and social areas, Afghan public support for the government will crumble. If opposition becomes widespread, NATO will face a military danger resembling that of the Soviets-who fought not only the Taliban but the Afghan people, and lost.

Essay Types: Essay