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Will NATO Prove Itself in Afghanistan?
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On April 16, 2003, NATO agreed to take over control of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), whose mission is to secure cover Afghanistan. That moment marked a potential watershed event. If one were to judge it by Sen. Lugar’s dictum to the alliance - ‘go out of area, or out of business’ - it seemed that NATO was way out of area (rightly so) and in business big-time. Ironically, six years hence, instead of redeeming the promise of collective security during NATO’s 60th anniversary, many of our North Atlantic allies poured water on its prospects via their paltry and precarious commitments to reverse the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan. A member of the SFOR contingent in Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) used to joke: ‘America is the Viagra that props up NATO.’ Humor here bares an unpleasant (and for some, unpalatable) fact: absent America, the world’s most advanced collective security alliance may not be as virile as Bob Dole in a Pfizer commercial. NATO’s decision to lead ISAF was designed to demonstrate that its September 12, 2001, invocation of Article 5 of the Washington Treaty – ‘an armed attack against one or more of [NATO members] shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they will assist the…[member/(s )attacked], individually and in concert with such action as …necessary, including the use of armed force…’– was not merely a symbolic act. It would be backed up by substantive action. So why did NATO commit only 5000 civilian and armed personnel (none in permanent combat role) temporarily for the summer to execute its most important mission, when Americans are committing an additional 21,000 troops to stabilize Afghanistan? How can one explain NATO behavior except that its potency is moot without its most powerful member? Perhaps NATO didn’t realize what it was getting into. After all, what was expected to be a peacekeeping mission of around 5000 peacekeepers near Kabul, has morphed to one with about 58,000 soldiers today, whose duties far exceed normal peacekeeping functions. Plus, the ISAF mission covers all of Afghanistan - an area covering 650,000 km2 and comprises nearly 37 million people. To put this in perspective compare Iraq with 29 million people and about a third less land area. Or to compare another ‘out of area’ NATO operation – operation undertaken outside the territory of alliance members: Afghanistan has 8 times the population of BiH and 12 times the land area. Non-realization of resources needed to fulfill ISAF’s mandate is no excuse for failure to execute the mission, once NATO committed to take the lead. Given their experience in BiH and Kosovo it seems quite unlikely that NATO planners and ambassadors were unaware of what the ISAF mandate entailed. The other argument justifying NATO’s handling of ISAF is that Americans were reluctant to give it full charge of securing and stabilizing Afghanistan, and it was NATO that prevented full blown Afghan stasis while America was adrift in Iraq (non-American NATO troops still outnumber Americans in Afghanistan, but by the end of this year this will not be the case). The charges do have some merit. The George W. Bush administration was largely dismissive of NATO actions. The fact that Operation Enduring Freedom continues separately from ISAF testifies that Americans do not want to give NATO complete charge. Such a state of affairs is all the more reason for NATO to have ensured an effective response to the Taliban surge to show the new US administration that past reasons for distrust are unwarranted. When one looks to past ‘out of area’ operations, specifically BiH, we see that many European members of NATO proclaimed ‘the hour of Europe has arrived’ which was code for ‘America keep out’. But it was American involvement that ultimately led to cease-fire in Bosnia, and the final peace negotiations took place at a US military base in Dayton, Ohio, of all places. The Implementation Force (IFOR) that was to implement Dayton Accords was 60,000 strong with nearly half the contingent comprising American troops. That is the sort of action required to back up a commitment to secure and stabilize a conflict environment. It is about time that our NATO partners, particularly Germany, France and Canada, realize this and reverse their planned troop withdrawals from, or aversion to send more of their combat troops to, Afghanistan. The situation in dire and NATO needs to step up to the plate to redeem its decision to lead ISAF, thereby redeeming the promise of collective security in its 60th year. Otherwise come fall, the new Secretary-General may find NATO swallowing yet another ‘Viagra’ with an Americanized ISAF mission. M. Patel is a freelance writer and editor/analyst for the Center for International Relations

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