For NATO alliance, progress in Lisbon

Thursday, November 25, 2010; 5:53 PM

THE WAR in Afghanistan has threatened to break the NATO alliance - regardless of the outcome of the war itself. The historic decision by the transatlantic organization to take on that difficult mission far from its base in Europe exposed critical and possibly irremediable weaknesses, from the reluctance of many governments to send troops into combat to their lack of helicopters, armored vehicles or training for counterinsurgency operations. Two of the countries whose troops actually fought the Taliban, Canada and the Netherlands, decided on a premature withdrawal.

Given this record, NATO's Lisbon summit meeting last weekend was encouraging. All of the alliance's members - and the more than 20 other nations that have joined the international force in Afghanistan - signed on to a plan to continue the mission until at least the end of 2014. The goal is to transfer lead security responsibility to Afghan forces by the end of that period, though U.S. and other Western troops will still be needed for training and backup.

It remains to be seen whether it will prove possible for U.S. and Western armies to step back without handing part or all of the country to the Taliban. But the 2014 plan provides a clear strategy and should prevent debilitating uncertainty about whether and how long European armies will remain committed to the mission. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen deserves credit for rallying governments behind the plan, as does the Obama administration - whose 2011 timetable for beginning withdrawals had disconcerted and confused many of the allies.

A further sign of the strengthened commitment was the filling by NATO members of hundreds of vacancies for trainers and mentors for the Afghan army and police - a gap that has been an irritant for U.S. commanders for more than a year. Canada decided to supply some of the trainers even as it goes ahead with the withdrawal of its combat troops in 2011. More trainers will be needed in the coming years, and NATO governments that are reluctant to commit their forces to combat, or are ill prepared to do so, ought to step up.

The Afghan experience has rightly raised questions about whether NATO should even try to take on missions beyond its members' territory. But a second outcome of the Lisbon summit was the adoption of a new "strategic concept" that commits the alliance to maintaining the capability for expeditionary missions. Given the cuts already underway or likely to come in European defense budgets - including a large reduction by Britain - this was a timely development. At best it will induce European governments to modernize their forces and equip them for foreign missions even if budgets are trimmed. And it offers the United States the assurance that should it have to undertake wars such as Afghanistan in the future, it will not need to act alone.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company