While the attention of Washington is focused on Iraq, the other military front in the struggle against militant Islam is warming up. Afghanistan has until now shown better promise of success than Iraq. Yet there are clear signs that this spring will be an intensely challenging time for the Afghan government and for the NATO coalition forces operating to support it. We are being warned that a Taliban spring offensive is in the works, and how NATO responds will be crucial, both for the future of Afghanistan and for NATO as well.
The demise of the NATO alliance has been pronounced any number of times since the end of the Cold War (and before for that matter), and the search for reasons for its continued relevance has been on ever since the disappearance of the Soviet Union. As Europe and the United States have found growing areas of disagreement, particularly in public opinion, the cohesive tissue represented by NATO has become at once both more important and harder to protect.
Furthermore, in the context of growing EU ambitions to have its own foreign policy and its military chain of command and missions, as distinct from those of NATO, it is an alliance that is under strain. Here, Afghanistan takes on crucial importance. It really is a test case for NATO's future out of area operations, a fact that no NATO member would dispute.
It is, therefore, a matter of considerable puzzlement and concern that NATO allies that have contributed to the roughly 35,000 strong NATO stabilization in Afghanistan have also taken steps to undermine the mission. (The United Sates has 13,000 troops, of which 9,000 are not operating under NATO command.) This is not very much compared the 162,000 troops in Iraq and certainly not in comparison with the size of Afghanistan. In addition the Taliban, al Qaeda and their various allies have sanctuaries in Waziristan across the Pakistani border. Their activities have doubled in 2006 as compared to the year before.
The brunt of the fighting in the dangerous areas of Afghanistan is borne in addition to the Americans by the British, the Canadians, the Danes, the Dutch and the Poles. Though many other NATO countries have contributed, this in no way looks today like an alliance built on the "three musketeers principle," a fact that is of considerable frustration to those who have stepped up to the plate.
As President Bush stated last week in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute, "For NATO to succeed, member nations must provide commanders on the ground with the troops and the equipment they need to do their jobs... As well allies must lift restrictions on the forces they do provide so NATO commanders have the flexibility they need to defeat the enemy wherever the enemy may take a stand. The alliance was founded on this principle: An attack on one is an attack on all. That principle holds true whether the attack is on the home soil of a NATO nation, or on allied forces deployed on a NATO mission abroad. By standing together in Afghanistan, NATO forces protect our own people, and they must have the flexibility to be able to do their job."
A similarly strong message was delivered by Sen. John McCain in Munich the week before, as he challenged NATO members to lift the caveats on their troop deployments that are preventing them from acting effectively and cohesively. He also agitated for more troops, at least matching the projected U.S. troop increase of 3,000. Both speakers noted that we need this to provide stability to increase the size of the Afghan military standing currently at 30,000, less than half of what is needed.
Mr. McCain was explicit about the meaning of Afghanistan for the future of NATO, and his analysis is spot on. "Failure in Afghanistan risks reversion to its pre-9/11 role as a sanctuary for al Qaeda terrorists with global reach, a defeat that would embolden Islamic extremists, and the rise of an unencumbered narcostate... If NATO does not prevail in Afghanistan, it is difficult to imagine the alliance undertaking another "hard security" operation -- in or out of area and its credibility would suffer a grievous blow."
In the world of the 21st century with its less predictable international environment and its asymmetrical threats, preserving alliances is as important as ever, for the United States and Europe alike.
Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in the Washington Times