NATO's Afghan Stumbles

By Michael Gerson
Wednesday, February 13, 2008

MUNICH -- For European leftists, apparently the only thing worse than dead white men is live white men talking about death. So the Munich Conference on Security Policy -- a yearly meeting of European and American military officials and experts -- attracted a large contingent of pierced and angry protesters chanting unprintable slogans. After a few days at the conference listening to droning simultaneous translations and concentrated diplomatic blandness, I was fully prepared to join the protesters.

But there was one important moment. Defense Secretary Robert Gates delivered the latest in a series of rebukes to European nations for not sharing enough of the burden in Afghanistan. "We must not -- we cannot -- become a two-tiered alliance of those who are willing to fight and those who are not," he argued. This would "effectively destroy the alliance."

For two decades, NATO's main purpose has not been "to fight" but to earnestly debate its own role and relevance. And it does have an important role. The prospect of NATO expansion provides incentives for reform from the Balkans to Ukraine. And it seems wise to maintain a military alliance of democracies in Europe, with Russia increasingly convinced that one Cold War was not enough.

But by Gates's standard -- a willingness to share military burdens and sacrifice in a common cause -- NATO hardly exists. During the past 15 years, Europe has taken a peace dividend so massive that the slightest military exertion leaves it bent and gasping for air. And public support for the Afghan mission is shallow across Europe. More than 50 percent of Germans believe their nation should withdraw from Afghanistan. German authorities seem proud of resisting that pressure by maintaining a contribution of 3,200 troops -- a rather pathetic boast from a wealthy nation of 80 million people. Administration arm-twisting is likely to result in the contribution of few thousand additional troops by Germany and France. But no one believes this would mark a turning point in the Afghan war.

We are not merely facing another crisis of NATO as we did in the Balkans. We are facing a broad insurgency in Asia that is actively preparing for violence against the "near enemy" in Afghanistan and Pakistan -- and the "far enemy" in Europe, India and the United States.

Americans are accustomed to thinking of the Afghan war as a Taliban uprising supported from havens in Pakistan. In reality, we are seeing a broad, borderless, regional revolt in the Pashtun tribal belt, two-thirds of which lies in Pakistan. In southern Afghanistan, the Taliban is pressing to retake Kandahar and other areas. In eastern Afghanistan, the Taliban are more internationalized -- influenced by Pakistan and al-Qaeda -- and seek both to maintain the havens and take terrorist shots at Western Europe and America. In the semi-autonomous tribal regions of Pakistan, large madrassa facilities feed a radicalism with global ambitions of murder -- and radical tribal leaders put increasing pressure on settled areas.

The normal, historical response to this kind of challenge would be to pay off various tribes and turn them against each other. Pakistan has tried. The problem is that these tribes, unlike in the past, shelter a transnational threat. Terrorists and radicals exploit long-standing local grievances to gain global reach. And so our safety increasingly depends on the security and development of places such as South Waziristan and Swat -- which is the real lesson of Sept. 11.

Yet every element of our response seems hobbled. In Afghanistan, corruption has flourished, and responsible leaders are in short supply. Pakistan is unprepared to fight a counterinsurgency campaign in the tribal regions -- and seems only half convinced that one is necessary. Civilian reconstruction and military efforts in Afghanistan are uncoordinated. NATO military efforts in the south are reminiscent of Iraq a year ago -- we "clear" but cannot "hold" long enough to "build." And while it is easy for Americans to complain about the Europeans, our military is also badly overstretched.

Success in Afghanistan and Pakistan will require a long-term commitment. America will need to take a broader military role in southern Afghanistan; the Afghan military will need to be massively expanded; the Pakistani military will need to be trained, aided and motivated to fight tribal extremists. But meanwhile, the threat of terrorism germinates, sprouts and grows to ugly maturity in one of the most remote and confusing regions of the world.

Still, NATO is not on the verge of a decisive loss in Afghanistan. We are either winning slowly or losing slowly. It is just hard to tell which.

michaelgerson@cfr.org

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