With its recent elections, Afghanistan has come to the end of the road laid out for it at the 2001 Bonn Conference. The country will now have a popularly elected president and Parliament. It remains, however, desperately poor, dependent on illegal drug production and challenged by a fundamentalist insurgency operating out of sanctuaries in Pakistan. The country needs a new road map, and continued international support, as it embarks upon the next stage of its journey.
One important element of this new map will be an expansion of NATO's responsibilities for peacekeeping throughout the country. The alliance is already performing this mission in Kabul and the relatively tranquil northern provinces. Over the coming year, it is gradually to assume these same functions for the rest of the country.
NATO's capacity to support the next step in Afghanistan's reconstruction is limited, however. NATO is the world's strongest military alliance, but it is just that, a military alliance. Unlike the United Nations or the European Union, which also do peacekeeping, NATO is not equipped to undertake the myriad of civil functions, from police training to voter registration to economic development, that ultimately determine the worth of any military intervention.
In the Balkans NATO's limits were offset by robust EU and American leadership in the field of civil implementation. There it has been European and American police, judges, engineers, election monitors, central bankers and development advisers who have promoted the economic and political transformation of Bosnia and Kosovo, without which NATO's military mission would ultimately have been wasted.
In Afghanistan this synergy between NATO and the EU is largely missing. Individual European nations — including particularly Britain, France and Germany — have mounted significant aid programs. The EU as an institution, rather than its member states, disposes of the bulk of European resources for reconstruction and development. These resources are not now being applied, in any substantial way, to Afghanistan.
For nearly a decade the dialogue between NATO and the EU has focused almost exclusively upon how NATO can help Europe conduct military operations. Yet of the two organizations, it is NATO that needs EU assistance to successfully perform such missions more than the reverse.
It is, after all, quite possible to imagine an EU-led military operation brought to a successful conclusion without any NATO involvement. It is impossible to imagine the reverse. No nation-building endeavor can succeed without the application of civil as well as military resources.
Despite this decade of dialogue, relations between these two organizations, headquartered only a few miles apart in the heart of Europe, are strained by suspicions and petty jealousies. There are NATO stalwarts who regard the EU as an unwelcome (and incompetent) interloper in the field of military cooperation. There are EU champions who believe that their organization can develop only over NATO's corpse. What is remarkable is that allied governments, whose vital interests are tied up in the success of both organizations, should allow such institutional parochialism to stifle badly needed cooperation between the two.
As regards Afghanistan, one option is for NATO to develop and field the necessary civil capabilities that the EU already possesses. But the European allies, having poured so much effort into building up the EU's capacity in this sphere, are unlikely to invest in a similar effort in building up NATO's. The success of NATO in Afghanistan will, therefore, require someone else to deploy and train police, build the rule of law, promote the development of civil society, organize elections and stimulate economic development.
It is time, therefore, to stop asking what NATO can do for the EU, and begin asking what the EU can do for NATO. And Afghanistan is the place to start. This might best be done in a triangular dialogue between NATO, the EU and the United States. The goal would be to ensure that both European and American civil assets are deployed throughout Afghanistan in a manner that complements NATO's peacekeeping role and takes advantage of the security that organization will be providing to push forward the country's reconstruction.
James Dobbins, director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at Rand Corp., was the Bush administration's first envoy for Afghanistan.
This commentary originally appeared in International Herald Tribune on September 30, 2005.