The EU Should Put Up or Shut Up in Afghanistan


Nov 18, 2006

Time is running out for success in Afghanistan. The NATO summit in Riga of November 28-29 may be the last chance to pull that country back from the brink. NATO assumed responsibility for providing security for all of Afghanistan in October. While about 8,000 of the 20,000 United States troops in Afghanistan operate independently, the rest have joined the most ambitious military venture in NATO's history, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

Each of the 26 NATO allies has troops in Afghanistan, as do 11 other countries. Some, like Macedonia and Finland, belong to the alliance's Partnership for Peace. Others, like Australia and South Korea, come from farther afield. Soldiers from different countries operate almost as a single unit with shared objectives, similar methods, compatible equipment, and complementary skills. A half-century of working together, plus a decade and a half of adapting to new threats and demands, is paying off.

The bad news is that the 40,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan are not enough. A few Afghan provinces, including those along parts of the border with Pakistan and its Taliban sanctuaries, have little or no ISAF presence and no Provincial Reconstruction Teams. Abysmal air and land transport limit the ability to move fighting forces to where they are needed most. Several countries, including NATO allies, have imposed "national caveats" that limit where their troops can be deployed or the tasks they undertake.

So, before any operation, commanders must determine which troops can take part and in what capacity, hampering both efficiency and effectiveness. Nevertheless, NATO would succeed if outside civilian efforts, resources, organization, and leadership in Afghanistan were equal to its own. Unfortunately, there is no central direction or even coordination of civilian efforts. Although non-governmental organizations are doing an effective job, responsibilities assigned to different European countries — such as helping the Afghan government with law enforcement and poppy eradication — have fallen short of both needs and promises.

Poppy production is soaring, experiments with alternative crops are lagging, and there are not enough forces to provide security for farmers willing to try growing something different. So the Taliban are obtaining ample funds from the heroin trade — easily Afghanistan's largest single source of foreign earnings. Western drug addicts are putting more money into Afghanistan's economy than Western governments.

The shortfalls of the civilian effort and the unwillingness or inability of the Afghan government to provide good governance are the country's central problems. These factors largely explain the Taliban's violent revival, and the uncertainty of many Afghans about whom to support. NATO has "bet the alliance" on Afghanistan. No amount of "transformation" or "partnerships" or anything else will matter much if NATO fails for the first time in its history — even if that failure is not of its own making.

Firm commitments at Riga of more allied troops and equipment for the ISAF and fewer national "caveats" must be part of the answer. But allied leaders must also act on the knowledge that NATO does not have the skills, resources, or experience to take full charge of meeting Afghanistan's requirements for external civilian help. That task must belong to the European Union, the one institution with the collective means, skills, resources, and — potentially — the leadership to relieve NATO and ISAF of burdens for which they are not suited.

Yet the EU holds back. Turf battles with NATO intrude, as well as competition between the EU's Commission and the member-based Council. Even though 19 of NATO's 26 members also belong to the EU, leaders and bureaucrats in most of these countries have been unwilling to back the commitment of their troops with the economic resources needed.

At the Riga summit, NATO should challenge the EU to take its proper share of responsibility for success in Afghanistan. This will require the EU to contribute money, manpower, and officials on the ground of the rank and stature of ISAF commanders, in an equal partnership with NATO.

By coincidence, the EU's rotating presidency is now held by Finland. NATO's presidents and prime ministers could simply cross the Baltic Sea from Riga for a half-day Afghanistan summit with the EU in Helsinki. One or two EU countries might object that this would mix institutional apples and oranges. But for Europeans who claim equal status with NATO for the EU's Common Foreign and Security Policy, this is the time to put up or shut up.

Even if leaders balk at an extra half-day of meetings to address the most serious threat to NATO's future, the Riga summit can issue a demand that its own 19 dual members, and the rest of the EU, agree to assume shared responsibility in Afghanistan.

NATO is in Afghanistan largely owing to shared concerns about terrorism. But NATO is also acting because some European countries want to show Washington that they can pull their security weight even though they refuse to go near the war in Iraq.

All NATO allies and EU members want the US to remain committed to Europe's future, to take the lead elsewhere in meeting security needs on which all agree, and to admit Europe into its strategic confidence. That now requires supporting the EU's deep involvement in Afghanistan as its key contribution to repairing and reforming the Atlantic alliance.

Robert E. Hunter, the US ambassador to NATO from 1993 to 1998, is a senior adviser at the RAND Corporation.

This op-ed originally appeared on

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