NATO's 'Myth' in Afghanistan
By Jackson Diehl
Monday, July 5, 2004; Page A17
A couple of years ago, when the Bush administration's unilateralists were still riding high, a senior official at the Pentagon told me the mocking slogan for the transatlantic alliance then circulating around his building went as follows: "NATO -- keep the myth alive!" No doubt he never imagined that in the run-up to the 2004 election, his boss would be trying to do just that -- only without the sarcasm.
"I don't know when in the history of the alliance we've seen so many successes," a newly enthusiastic Donald Rumsfeld told the press traveling with him last week to the NATO summit in Istanbul. He and other administration officials extolled NATO's decision to help train Iraqi security forces and its commitment of more troops to Afghanistan. They echoed President Bush's claim that the feuding about Iraq that nearly destroyed the alliance last year was over. "We got everything we wanted," one White House official said.
Such rhetoric is a logical response to John F. Kerry's tactic of making Bush's mismanagement of NATO, and its consequences in Iraq, a central part of his argument to voters. It is even partly true -- at least in the sense that the Bush administration is now eager to work with the allies in Iraq and Afghanistan, in contrast to the stiff-arm Rumsfeld delivered to the Europeans hoping to join the first offensive against the Taliban in the fall of 2001.
The sad part is that, behind all the spin, the old Pentagon gibe is looking more and more apt. Having expanded to include most of Central Europe, and resolved to address the threats of the 21st century, America's most important international partnership is on the brink of a crippling failure, one that would leave a President Kerry as well as a second-term Bush with little to work with.
The threat lies not in Iraq -- where continued transatlantic discord in fact makes a full-blown NATO operation impossible -- but in Afghanistan, which NATO long ago adopted as a major ongoing mission. Last year the allies resolved to expand a modest peacekeeping force in Kabul to provincial centers around the country, an operation critical to bolstering the authority of the weak pro-Western government and making possible the national elections planned for this year.
Yet, after months and months of haggling, European governments were only barely able to commit at Istanbul to staffing three new provincial centers, each with a couple of hundred troops. The cup-rattling forced on Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer was humiliating: With 26 nations and 5 million men in arms to draw on, Scheffer struggled to obtain just three helicopters for the Afghan operation.
A desperate appeal for more help by Afghan President Hamid Karzai to the Istanbul summit essentially went unanswered. A promise was made to supply a couple of thousand more troops at the time of the elections, but no one knows where they will come from. At best, NATO will have 8,400 troops under its command in Afghanistan by the fall, or about a fifth of the number it dispatched to tiny Kosovo in 1999. The United States has some 14,000 troops in the country, but none are under NATO's command.
It now looks possible that the Afghan elections will be postponed because of lack of security. If so, NATO will get much of the blame -- and the consequences for the alliance's cohesion may be dire. "Afghanistan is the litmus test for NATO's new mission," says a European ambassador in Washington. "If we fail in Afghanistan we might as well fold up and go home, because no one will take us seriously after that."
The mess points to the realities behind the happy talk from Istanbul. Though it now extols NATO rhetorically, the Pentagon's practical approach to it hasn't changed: No American troops have been pledged to the NATO Afghan mission, and proposals to bring the U.S. forces already there under NATO's umbrella have gone nowhere. European governments, for their part, doubt that Bush's conversion to multilateralism is real -- and consequently have little appetite for an operation that appears thankless as well as dangerous and expensive.
"The allies need more reassurance," the European ambassador told me. "We want to be assured that what we're now seeing is not multilateralism growing out of desperation -- because desperate multilateralism is not effective multilateralism."
Yet, even if the Europeans were more enthusiastic, they might have little to contribute. Germany, the largest country in the European Union, has 270,000 soldiers in its army -- yet its commanders maintain that no more than about 10,000 can be deployed at any one time. No matter the politics, the German Parliament is unlikely to authorize an increase in the current ceiling of 2,300 troops for Afghanistan. And Germany is the largest contributor to the NATO operation -- France, which has never liked the idea of NATO operations outside of Europe, has only 800 soldiers there.
For now, Bush's interest lies in glossing over this trouble. Kerry's pitch is that he can make it go away with a new, alliance-centered foreign policy. Both are, in effect, counting on the myth's staying alive -- at least until November.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company