U.S.-NATO Immersion Course


Mar 10, 2009

This commentary originally appeared in The Washington Times on March 10, 2009.

At a major conference in Munich last month, Vice President Joseph Biden underscored the U.S. determination to rebuild strong and productive relations with its European allies.

No issue matters more than Afghanistan, where the U.S. military commitment is rising, many of the allies are unsure of the conflict's importance to them and everyone on both sides of the Atlantic is waiting to see what course President Obama will set for the United States, beyond the 17,000 troops he has already decided to dispatch there.

Mr. Obama has "ordered a strategic review of our policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan to make sure that our goals are clear and achievable," Mr. Biden said, and "as we undertake that review, we seek ideas and input from you, our partners." In his first speech to Congress, President Obama also stressed that "with our friends and allies, we will forge a new and comprehensive strategy for Afghanistan."

Just seeking "ideas and input" is not likely to be good enough for the allies. All 25 have forces at risk in Afghanistan. All have a direct stake in what happens on the ground, in the strategy, and in their domestic public opinion. Each NATO nation wants, needs, and merits a direct role in deciding what is to be done. If the United States does not fully meet these European political requirements, the alternative could be further crumbling of support for NATO's operations.

Mr. Biden did start a process of private consultation with key allies at Munich. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met with the allies in Brussels last week, Mr. Biden will do the same this week "to solicit last-minute opinions from all who wish to participate, " and President Obama will visit France and Germany for NATO's 60th anniversary summit in early April.

But these state occasions, along with normal back-and-forth at NATO, are unlikely to be enough for the allies. This will be especially true if the United States considers basic changes in policy. These could include whether to continue supporting Afghan President Hamad Karzai; how far to carry combat into neighboring Pakistan; whether an operational distinction should be drawn between the Taliban and al Qaeda; and thus whether the Taliban should be considered a valid negotiating partner in Afghanistan, as some British and Afghan officials have suggested.

The European and Canadian allies have gone far out on a collective limb in support of U.S. commitment and strategy in Afghanistan. Most have done so not because they fear the spread of terrorism to their own countries, but out of solidarity within NATO and to show the Americans they will pull some military weight in the region, when most of them refused to do so in Iraq.

One of the worst things that could happen now in the Alliance is for the United States to decide on a change in policy or approach without the allies being fully engaged in the process — that is, not just providing "ideas and input," but participating as intimate partners. There must be no surprises.

This should start with a special, indeed unprecedented daily immersion of U.S. planners with their European counterparts at NATO, or with NATO allies in Washington. Options should be fully transparent to all as they are prepared, so that decisions when they are reached — some as soon as the NATO summit — are truly taken in common.

Yes, the United States is expected by all to lead. But on this occasion, when it needs more allied support in a conflict zone than ever before in its history, the method needs to match the moment.

At the same time, the U.S. envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, should have with him at all times a senior representative of the NATO secretary general — not to censor or hamstring Mr. Holbrooke's diplomacy, but to ensure the fullest possible understanding within the Alliance of what is being done, with the fullest possible political mandate.

In Munich, Mr. Biden wisely refrained from making demands, especially military demands that would likely have been rejected. But no one doubts that Washington will be asking a lot of its allies: increased military forces, fewer limits on how and where they are deployed, and nonmilitary support for governance, reconstruction and development. For the allies' response to have a chance of being positive, how the administration conducts both its "strategic review of policy" and its diplomacy will be crucial.

Robert E. Hunter, former U.S. ambassador to NATO under President Clinton, is a senior adviser at the RAND Corp., a policy research and analysis institute.

More About This Commentary

Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.