Europe's Afghan Test


Jan 2, 2007

This commentary originally appeared in United Press International on January 2, 2007.

On Sept. 12, 2001, the European allies rose as one in support of the United States, struck by terrorists the day before. For the first time in its history, the North Atlantic Council invoked NATO's cardinal commitment, the "all for one" pledge to defend any ally subject to aggression.

European nations were not motivated by sentiment or charity. They knew that at some point, al-Qaida would target them. And they knew that unless they supported America in its hour of need, the United States could hardly be expected to respond if and when Europe again needed the weight of American power. America's cause was, indeed, shared by the Western alliance in common — strategically, politically and morally.

Five years later, the European allies watch the U.S. debate about Iraq with a mixture of schadenfruede and bemused detachment, but also with a good deal of apprehension and even fear for the impact of possible U.S. failure in Iraq or, worse, a new inward-turning on the part of the American people.

Of course, little has changed in European attitudes towards U.S. involvement in Iraq. The supporting coalition (led by Britain) is as narrow as before. There are no new volunteers for combat roles, and the recent NATO summit in Riga only produced commitments to help train Iraqi security forces — precious little comfort for the Alliance's beleaguered "indispensable nation."

But like the day after Sept. 11, 2001, there is something Europe needs to do to help America today, not just because the United States is in trouble but because all will share in the consequences of what happens now, for good or ill, in the greater Middle East.

Within the limits of European politics and attitudes, allies can serve their own interests as well as America's by radically stepping up their collective commitment to Afghanistan. Here, there is no ambiguity and there should be no ambivalence.

The United Nations mandated the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. The NATO allies unanimously accepted responsibility for its success. All 26 allies have deployed troops and other security personnel, as have 11 non-NATO countries. All must understand that a resurgent Taliban, ISAF failure, and allied retreat would impose severe penalties. NATO has, in fact, "bet the alliance" in Afghanistan and all the allies helped make that wager.

The good news at the Riga summit was that allied heads of state and government did focus on Afghanistan. The bad news is that they came up far short of what they have to do to reverse declining fortunes. NATO's military commanders gained a paltry number of new troop pledges. Those allies unwilling to face the risks of conflict agreed to modify their so-called "national caveats" that keep them out of harm's way, but only in an emergency, and tactical airlift will still fall far short of basic needs.

Even so, the military shortfall is a small part of the overall problem. Equally consequential are the continuing inadequacies of the Afghan government (about which outsiders ultimately can do little) and severe limitations on the non-military civilian effort that is a sine qua non of Afghanistan's future.

Allies with responsibilities for police training (Germany), fostering a viable judiciary (Italy), and stemming the renewed flood of opium poppy production (Britain) have fallen far short of what they agreed to do. Worse, there is no overall coordination of civilian activities undertaken by governments, international institutions and non-governmental organizations, and far too few resources.

It is a truism that Western drug addicts are putting more hard currency into Afghanistan than Western governments. The best that could be done by NATO at Riga was to adopt a weak French proposal for a "contact group." This is an oft-used device to advise on peace negotiations, but a non-starter for mobilizing resources, pinning responsibility and exercising leadership.

Leadership should be assumed by the European Union. Its members have all the needed resources and skills in governance, education, health, agriculture, and the like. Many have vast experience in so-called "nation building."

The EU has been demanding respect from NATO and the United States for its foreign policy and security ambitions. By assuming a greater role in Afghanistan, Europeans can show Washington that they are prepared to take on serious security responsibilities in the Middle East, not just to kibitz and criticize what the United States is doing in Iraq or not doing in Arab-Israeli peacemaking.

Action won't be cheap; and the Europeans must give authority to a first-class political personality as civilian "supremo" in Afghanistan, working in tandem with ISAF and the Afghan government.

Afghanistan is put up or shut up time for European nations in general and the EU in particular in the greater Middle East. Meeting responsibilities is in their own self-interest and is needed to forestall the first-ever failure by the Western alliance.

© 2007 United Press International

Robert E. Hunter is a senior adviser at the Rand Corp., a nonprofit research organization. He was U.S. ambassador to NATO from 1993 to 1998 and recently visited Afghanistan.

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