Afghanistan Is NATO's Most Important Challenge


Apr 4, 2009

This commentary originally appeared on, the website of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty on April 4, 2009.

This week's NATO summit is not the most important moment on this year's trans-Atlantic calendar. That honor belonged to the Group of 20 (G20) summit that was just concluded in London.

This is not just because the most important security issue facing the West — and the world — is the rescue of the global financial and economic systems. It was also because that is the venue at which the leadership ability of the new U.S. president, Barack Obama, was subjected to its first major international test.

Yet the NATO summit remains a close second to the G20. And what Obama and his NATO colleagues do during these two days will be critical, both in terms of the United States standing with its allies and of the ability of the Atlantic alliance to meet the pressing challenges before it.

The NATO agenda at Strasbourg and Kehl has been designed around the celebration of NATO's 60th anniversary. It also includes the ratification of its two newest members, Albania and Croatia, and France's rejoining the alliance's integrated military command structure, from which it departed in a huff 23 years ago.

That part of the NATO summit agenda is primarily about the past, including the continued wrapping up of the Cold War and the extension of NATO's writ to ensure a stable future for the European continent. It has been buttressed by U.S. steps this week to address a key European worry about America: whether Obama would be able to "press the reset button" in relations with Russia. He and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev went one better by setting an ambitious U.S.-Russian agenda and beginning talks to replace the soon-to-expire Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) of 1992.

The NATO summit will also offer up a "vision statement" of its future purposes and launch the writing of a new "Strategic Concept," the current one having been adopted in 1999, before the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the United States. A year or so from now, at a NATO summit in Lisbon, the allies will bless the new "Strategic Concept," which is designed to provide a clear sense of purpose for the Atlantic alliance.

Confronting The 'Dirty Secret'

All that well and good. But neither the celebration of NATO's 60th anniversary nor the new "Strategic Concept" will dominate the summit. Instead, taking center stage will be the conflict in Afghanistan and NATO's role in it — a task that would have seemed unimaginable only a few years ago. And however much the allies work to present an image of calm agreement, Afghanistan will be the unwelcome visitor at the banquet.

There are objective reasons for Afghanistan's prominence and the reluctance of allies to examine closely what the alliance is doing there — and, for many, what they are not doing there. More than five years after NATO assumed command of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, success seems no closer and indeed may well be receding.

Although all 28 NATO allies have forces in the country, many are not permitted by their governments or parliaments to take on the most dangerous assignments. Public opinion among European allies tends to be leery of commitments made and tasks undertaken; and several allies are already looking for an exit.

But what to do next in Afghanistan will dominate the summit for another reason. A week ago, Obama announced the results of a 60-day review of U.S. policy there and in Pakistan. As always, when the United States acts, allies get nervous. And this is true again, even though the Obama administration consulted extensively with allied governments.

In their defense, no NATO-member government — even those prepared to take the new U.S. policies at face value — has had an opportunity in one short week to discuss the issues with its parliament, much less to try building support within its population.

Much of what Obama proposed is a straight-line successor to the policies of the previous administration, with some reordering of priorities. It has been clear for some time that a major requirement for success is to focus on "hearts and minds" — namely, to promote good governance and to get on with the essential tasks of reconstruction and development — as well as to increase the Afghans' responsibility for their own future. This includes a significant increase in U.S. civilian personnel, an additional 4,000 noncombat soldiers to train the Afghan National Army and police, and requests to Europeans to help with these tasks and with the necessary effort to reduce the cultivation of opium poppies, the primary source of funding for Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

But Obama went further by acknowledging the war will last a long time — a "dirty secret" until now. He also said it will be necessary to work on the future of Pakistan as well as Afghanistan, including some military operations in Pakistan — conducted in practice for some time and now to be formally acknowledged. And the United States will take on a greater share of the overall burden. Indeed, while the United States is asking the Europeans to pay more and do more in nonlethal areas, it has drawn back from exerting pressure on Europeans to increase their military forces and to reduce limitations on what they can do.

Bringing NATO Back To Europe

In time, this may prove successful. But not necessarily for NATO. The U.S. Congress and the American people, once they realize that the relative burden on U.S. soldiers — and perhaps also on the U.S. Treasury — will grow, are likely to further criticize NATO and even question its value. This can be made worse if some allies, seeing U.S. willingness to take the lead, retreat from their responsibilities in Afghanistan even more.

None of these problems will be resolved at Strasbourg-Kehl. But they cannot be put on hold much longer. The United States must reinforce reasons for the allies to do more in Afghanistan and, potentially, in the Middle East and Southwest Asia. That will not be done by the president's exhortation that "we have a shared responsibility to act...because our own peace and security depends on it" — because many, if not most, Europeans don't believe it.

The United States needs to show Europe that America still cares about its security concerns closer to home. The Obama-Medvedev joint statement in London helps to do that by reducing fears of sour relations and a more assertive Russia. But the United States must also show that it takes seriously its continuing responsibilities in Europe.

This needs to include restoring NATO as an important place for the United States to consult about its global concerns; pledging not to make any further reductions in U.S. forces deployed in Europe; pressing for much closer ties between NATO and the European Union (now blocked in Afghanistan by a Turkish veto); and meeting European requirements in the Middle East, which includes trying to secure interests with Iran without war and working assiduously to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

NATO has a useful future. But it will require bridging the gap in perceptions between the United States and most of the European allies about what is important for security and what to do about it. Both sides have to start seeing the other's interests and concerns; and the time to make those commitments is at the NATO summit.

Robert E. Hunter, former U.S. ambassador to NATO under President Bill Clinton, is a senior adviser at the RAND Corporation. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

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