On 60th anniversary, NATO faces its biggest test

BRUSSELS — As the North Atlantic Treaty Organization gears up to celebrate its 60th anniversary April 3-4, there are nasty whispers — behind its back, in front of its face and down its halls — about whether the sexagenarian is fit for what many consider its most strenuous task ever: the war in Afghanistan.

And it’s not just NATO’s critics who raise the questions. No less an insider than NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has for years called the situation in Afghanistan the most complex and difficult challenge the alliance has ever faced, as the situation on the ground has continued to deteriorate.

The very involvement of NATO in the U.S.-led effort against the Taliban was historic, as the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 led the alliance for the first time ever to invoke its founding treaty’s “Article 5,” stipulating that an attack against one member is an attack against all.

And now the occasion of a NATO anniversary coinciding with a new U.S. administration — both bodies put success in Afghanistan at the top of their to-do lists — has created a significant opportunity for analysis, reflection and projection. But while the new U.S. leadership has the fleeting excuse that it had nothing to do with strategies now seen as inadequate, NATO’s deniability expired long ago, as it took over command of the United Nations-mandated International Strategic Assistance Force (ISAF), the now 41-nation support effort for the Afghan government, in 2003.

New prescriptions for the mission have abounded, including one being crafted in Washington by U.S. President Barack Obama’s national security team. That policy review and revamp is expected to be unveiled just before the NATO summit. The administration’s assessment is expected to dominate that gathering, to the chagrin of those who would like a bit of attention paid to some of the high points in the alliance’s history.

In the meantime, think tanks and scholars are releasing report after report on what NATO should be doing to try to reverse the negative trends in the more than seven-year struggle, most with the underlying threat that “NATO’s credibility is at stake.”

One recently-released review was composed specifically to enhance the debate on the alliance’s mission 60 years since its founding. With the “Washington NATO Project,” a group of highly-accomplished NATO experts from the Atlantic Council, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the National Defense University and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies outline a path to create an “Alliance Reborn” in the 21st century.

While the report covers far more than just NATO’s current morass in Afghanistan — commending, among other successes, the alliance’s accomplishments in keeping peace during the Soviet era and later welcoming eastern European members — it can’t help but acknowledge the elephant already sitting at the summit.

Citing the familiar “NATO’s credibility is on the line,” the authors warn that “(f)ailure in Afghanistan — on the heels of divisions over Iraq — would be devastating” for the alliance. Daniel Hamilton, Charles Barry, Hans Binnendijk, Stephen Flanagan, Julianne Smith and James Townsend argue that problems with the mission exist not just on the ground in the Afghan-Pakistan border area where NATO forces lack resources, but also in European capitals, where the situation in Afghanistan is not viewed as an immediate threat to their security.

This may be symptomatic of a European character borne out by numerous public opinion polls — they simply don’t view the terrorist danger from Afghanistan the same way Americans do. “Alliance Reborn” co-author Daniel Hamilton, discussing the report recently in Brussels, recommended greater efforts by European governments to make their publics understand that Al Qaeda is the most serious threat in the world to both North America and to Europe. The governments, Hamilton said, need to make citizens understand that they are not just sending men and women into combat “largely as a favor to the Americans.” If leaders believed in and emphasized European self-interest, it could go a long way toward reducing European public resistance to sending more troops to Afghanistan.

Carnegie Foundation Scholar Gilles Dorronsoro has a dramatically different view of the Afghanistan conundrum. He says many of the underlying assumptions of other prognosticators are simply unrealistic. In his report “Focus and Exit: An Alternative Strategy for the Afghan War,” Dorronsoro identifies Pakistan as the Achilles heel of the current strategy. He says even if the Obama administration and its allies could send 150,000 more soldiers into the conflict (which is highly unlikely), such a force could neither subdue the insurgency nor seal the border with Pakistan, where they escape.

Dorronsoro also argues that the timeframe of three to five years the Obama administration and its allies are discussing can’t produce results, even though the effort is expected to focus more on Pakistan. He says that even if Pakistan’s government immediately launched a massive counter-insurgency campaign in the border area, it likely would lead to civil war in the near term, not a defeat of the Taliban. According to Dorronsoro, the alliance’s best bet is to do what it can quickly to strengthen the Afghan government and infrastructure — and then get out.

With such dramatically different views on the table, NATO planners’ cups runneth over with advice for the path ahead in Afghanistan even as no strategy purports to guarantee “victory.”

This is why even NATO supporters hedge when discussing the alliance’s future. Stephen Flanagan, another of the “Alliance Reborn” authors, stresses that while NATO needs to invest in its other responsibilities and interests, “if we don’t use the opportunities before us right now” to deal with Afghanistan, “our time will pass and we will not be able to build the other plans.”

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