Celebrating its 60th birthday this year, NATO is looking peaked and significantly worse for wear. Aggressive and ineffectual, the organization shows signs of premature senility. Despite the smiles and reassuring rhetoric at its annual summits, its internal politics have become fractious to the point of dysfunction. Perhaps like any sexagenarian in this age of health-care crises and economic malaise, the transatlantic alliance is simply anxious about its future.
Frankly, it should be.
The painful truth is that NATO may be suffering from a terminal illness. Its current mission in Afghanistan, the alliance’s most significant and far-flung muscle-flexing to date, might be its last. Afghanistan has been the graveyard of many an imperial power from the ancient Macedonians to the Soviets. It now seems to be eyeing its next victim.
For NATO, this year should have been a celebration, not a dirge. After suffering a transatlantic rift of epic proportions during the Bush years, the alliance thrilled to the election of Barack Obama and his politics of conciliation. The new American administration swore it would shift troops from Iraq to Afghanistan to give NATO more of what it wanted to fight “the right war.” Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton both promised to push the “reset button” on U.S.-Russian relations, potentially removing one of the greatest obstacles to NATO’s health and well-being. And in a final flourish for the alliance’s diamond jubilee, France agreed to return to the fold, reintegrating into NATO after 43 years of standoffishness.
“Afghanistan has an uncanny ability to spoil anybody’s best-laid plans.”
But hold those celebrations. Afghanistan has an uncanny ability to spoil anybody’s best-laid plans. At the April 2009 NATO summit in Strasbourg, Obama failed to get the troop reinforcements he wanted from his European allies. The NATO powers, in any case, have attached so many strings and caveats to the troops they are supplying — Germany has kept its soldiers away from the conflict-ridden south, most contingents have complex rules limiting combat operations, Canada will be pulling out in 2011 — that NATO’s mission resembles Gulliver tied down by the Lilliputians.
The real nail in NATO’s coffin, however, has been its stunning lack of success on the ground. The Taliban has, in fact, not only increased its hold over large parts of southern Afghanistan, but spread north as well. Most embarrassingly for NATO, a recent surge of alliance troops seems only to have made the Taliban stronger. Nearly eight years of alternating destruction (air bombardment, over 100,000 troops on the ground) and reconstruction ($38 billion in economic assistance appropriated by the U.S. Congress since 2001) have all come up desperately short. A new counterinsurgency campaign doesn’t look any more promising. What was once billed as the most powerful military alliance in history has been thwarted by an irregular set of militias and guerrilla groups without the backing of a major power in one of the poorest countries on Earth.
Worse yet, the Afghan operation has become a serious political liability for many NATO members. European politicians fear the kind of electoral backlash that ousted Britain’s Tony Blair and Spain’s Jose Maria Aznar when the Iraq War went south. Despite enthusiasm for Obama, European public opinion is, by increasingly large margins, in favor of reducing or withdrawing troops from Afghanistan (55% of West Europeans and 69% of East Europeans according to a recent German Marshall Fund poll). Mounting combat fatalities, a rising civilian casualty count, and devastating snafus like the recent bombing of two fuel trucks stolen by the Taliban in Kunduz Province that killed many civilians have only strengthened anti-war feeling.
Meanwhile, in the United States, both elite and public opinion is turning against the war. With the American economy still reeling from recession, President Obama faces a guns-vs-butter dilemma that threatens to wreck his domestic agenda as surely as the Vietnam War deep-sixed Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society reforms of the 1960s. No surprise then that the president is ambivalent about following his top general’s request to send yet more U.S. troops to fight in what the press now calls “Obama’s War.”
Not so long ago, pundits were calling for a global NATO that would expand its power and membership to include U.S. partners in Asia and elsewhere. This hubris has given way to despair and discord. Although the United States still holds out hope for a NATO that focuses on global threats like terrorism and nuclear proliferation, other alliance members would prefer to refocus on the traditional mission of defending Europe. Add in disagreements between the United States and its allies over how to approach the Afghan situation and NATO begins to look more like a rugby scrum than a military alliance.
NATO officials are now scrambling to sort things out, in part by calling the allies together to debate a new Afghan strategy before the year ends. Meanwhile, NATO’s Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen is preparing a new “strategic concept” that would recode the organization’s operating system for the next summit in Lisbon in 2010.
It might be too little, too late. Some U.S. officials are fed up with what they consider European dilly-dallying about Afghanistan. “We have been very much disappointed by the performance of many if not most of our allies,” Robert E. Hunter, the U.S. ambassador to NATO during the Clinton administration, recently said in testimony before Congress. “Indeed, there are elements within the U.S. government that are beginning to wonder about the continued value of the NATO Alliance.”
As for the Europeans, they are building up their own independent military capabilities — and will continue to do so whether or not NATO gets its act together. The question is: Will the Afghan War eventually push the United States and Europe toward an amicable divorce? If so, the military campaign that was to give NATO a new lease on life and turn it into a global military force will have proven to be its ultimate undoing.
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John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies and writes its regular World Beat column. His past essays, including those for Tomdispatch.com, can be read at his website.