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Where's the alliance in Afghanistan?

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By Anne Applebaum
Tuesday, October 20, 2009

"This is a solemn moment for this House and our country," Gordon Brown, the British prime minister, said while addressing the House of Commons last week. A hush fell over the room and, according to a parliamentary sketch writer, the members "ceased to fidget, a truly rare thing in the Commons." Brown then began to read a list of names: the 37 British soldiers who died in Afghanistan over the summer.

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Just a week before, a parallel scene had unfolded across the Channel: In Paris, a soldier wounded in Afghanistan this summer died at a hospital. French Prime Minister Fran├žois Fillon paid homage to the sergeant, speaking of "the courage of our soldiers, their devotion and their professionalism," which he said merited the recognition of "the nation." In the United States, meanwhile, CNN featured the story of an American mother who flew home with the body of her son, another soldier killed in Afghanistan this summer. He died in what was described as "the deadliest battle for U.S. troops since July 2008."

When Polish, Dutch or German soldiers die, the stories are often much the same. Politicians, and frequently the national media as well, salute their heroism and express the thanks of the nation. Patriotic songs are played at the funerals, which are sometimes featured on the news. Usually a number is mentioned: the 221 British troops who have died in Afghanistan since 2001, the roughly 850 Americans, 131 Canadians, 36 French soldiers, 34 Germans, 21 Dutch, 22 Italians, 26 Spaniards, 15 Poles and others.

Sometimes, a political outburst follows, too. In recent days Prime Minister Brown has been attacked by an opponent on the grounds that British soldiers are "fighting and dying for an Afghan government that is deeply corrupt." French President Nicolas Sarkozy has just been forced to declare that while French soldiers will for the moment stay in Afghanistan, "not one single more" will be sent in the future. Rising summer casualties have led to an intensifying debate in the Netherlands. And of course the American argument rages on.

Only very rarely do the casualties of one country make it into the media, the political debates or the prime ministerial speeches of another country. There has been an international coalition operating in Afghanistan since 2001. NATO has been in charge of that coalition since 2003. Yet to read the British press, one would think the British are there almost alone, fighting a war in which they have no national interest. The same is true in France and in the Netherlands. American media outlets hardly note the participation of other countries, even though some -- Britain and Canada -- have endured casualties at a higher rate than that of the U.S. military, relative to the size of their contingents.

There is almost no sense anywhere that the war in Afghanistan is an international operation, or that the stakes and goals are international, or that the soldiers on the ground represent anything other than their own national flags and national armed forces: Most of the war's European critics want to know why their boys are fighting "for the Americans," not for NATO. Most of the American critics dismiss the European contribution as useless or ignore it altogether. As Jackson Diehl pointed out Monday, the central debate about future Afghanistan policy is taking place in Washington without any obvious contributions from anybody else. I'm not going to blame the U.S. administration alone for this: It's not as if Europe has put forward a different plan -- and there was certainly a moment, back at the beginning of this administration, when that would have been very welcome.

The fact is that the idea of "the West" has been fading for a long time on both sides of the Atlantic, as countless "whither-the-Alliance" seminars have been ritually observing for the past decade. But the consequences are now with us: NATO, though fighting its first war since its foundation, inspires nobody. The members of NATO feel no allegiance to the alliance, or to one another. On its home continent, NATO does precious little military contingency planning, preferring to hold summits. Above all, there is no recognizable alliance leader who is willing or able to engage in the national debates of the various member countries, to argue in favor of the Afghan mission or any other. President Obama could in theory do this, but I'm guessing the idea doesn't fill him with inspiration.

None of this might matter much in Afghanistan, since the outcome of current deliberations may well be some version of the status quo. But the next time NATO is needed, I doubt whether it will be there at all.

applebaumletters@washpost.com


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