The NATO conference that concluded today in Latvia confirmed Afghanistan as the alliance's top international priority. Converting that resolution into action on the ground, however, remains as illusory as ever. Germany, France, Italy and Spain still refuse to deploy troops in areas where there is fighting unless it is an "emergency." This hardly meets the requirements of Afghanistan's NATO commander General Richards for a ready reserve to counter renewed Taliban attacks expected when the winter ends. It also makes it difficult to provide the economic aid to the region during this lull. Such aid is deemed even more important than extra troops in pre-empting future Taliban inroads.
NATO was at a psychological disadvantage initially in its contest with the Taliban this summer. The Taliban first believed that its deployment was a sign of weakness. The more aggressive Americans were to be replaced by less aggressive Europeans and Canadians. They therefore sought to inflict significant casualties on NATO troops as they were first deployed. The Taliban assumed this would induce their governments to withdraw them from Afghanistan entirely. The very heavy fighting during this summer took NATO by surprise, but it undermined the Taliban as well. The Taliban did not expect such a fierce response that ended up leaving so many of its own people dead. It brought ruin to the villages they had commandeered, making the Taliban unwelcome guests, but winning few hearts and minds for the coalition forces that routed them. The population now remains on the fence. It waits to see which force is stronger, more persistent and offers the most security.
So this summer was a draw. NATO troops proved their own capability and readiness to fight, attributes that rank high in Afghan culture. But they still have too few troops to provide a level of security or development aid that might make a permanent improvement. In addition the Taliban can continue to play on the population's discontent. After five years the south has seen little Afghan government or international presence. Those that do arrive seem primarily intent on destroying the only cash crop in the region: opium. Worse, neglect of this area has led to a return of abusive practices by militia leaders and appointed officials that have alienated the population. It was these abuses that helped bring the Taliban to power earlier. If security is not restored and the economy improved, the Taliban will find new support.
The Taliban insurgency is still very far from toppling the Karzai government in Kabul. Major fighting remains restricted to regions bordering Pakistan. Disarray in the alliance over the deployment issue is therefore not fatal to the military effort in Afghanistan, in part because so much of it continues to be done by Americans in the east. It seems unlikely that Washington would allow the situation in the south to collapse just over the provision of a battalion or two of troops. More significant is the ill will the dispute generates among countries that have put troops at risk. Canada and the UK experienced fierce fighting and took significant casualties in Kandahar and Helmand. Holland picked Mullah Omar's mountainous home province of Uruzghan as its deployment zone. They rightfully resent the ‘play it safe at all costs' policies of the other major European allies. Their willingness to put their own troops on the line and take the political heat at home can probably survive Taliban attacks. It cannot survive the perception that they are being played for suckers by more cynical allies.
But playing it safe may be an illusion in a place like Afghanistan. It is a strategy that has a very short shelf life. Despite Pakistan's continual threadbare denials, the Taliban currently depend on safe havens there to attack Afghanistan. Should they actually be able to base themselves in strength inside Afghanistan, it would only be a matter of time before danger comes to the currently stable areas of the north and west. This is not just a military threat. In Afghanistan no one ever takes national power by fighting decisive battles. Instead people decide who the likely winners will be and throw their support to them. They thereby avoid more destructive conflicts and protect their own local interests. The Taliban came to power against their rivals in this way, and they lost power to the Americans the same way. The challenge for NATO in the south is to demonstrate that the Taliban can never be the winner. The challenge to the other NATO members is to make themselves more useful. If not, the fighting will eventually come to them.
Thomas Barfield is professor and chairman of the Department of Anthropology at Boston University and is currently at work on a book on Afghanistan. He is author of The Central Asian Arabs of Afghanistan: Pastoral Nomadism in Transition and Afghanistan: An Atlas of Indigenous Domestic Architecture. He is completing a book examining changing concepts of political
legitimacy in Afghanistan as a Guggenheim Fellow.