WASHINGTON – “We must not –we cannot—become a two-tiered alliance of those willing to fight and those who are not”, Robert Gates, US Secretary of Defense told a largely European audience at a recent Munich Conference on Security Studies Policy, where NATO’s effort towards Afghanistan was a central topic. “Such a development, with all its implications for collective security, would effectively destroy the alliance”, he added.
Indeed. Strong language from the US Sec Def.
But not much of a ripple effect. Indeed, reading about NATO matters in Afghanistan on the official NATO website, one is lost in generic, (perhaps decidedly), confusing language as to who does what there and under what conditions and circumstances. Afghanistan is there on NATO’s busy agenda….and so is Kosovo…..and so is more……Any specific sense of urgency about Afghanistan? Can one detect that this is a strategic priority? If it is there, I missed it entirely. The actions of most member states indicate that the current level of effort is deemed to be “just about right”, in present circumstances.
The notion that the loss of Afghanistan would be a significant “symbolic loss”, especially for this Islamic, “appearance conscious” worldview –as it is indeed “the place” where this whole terror, anti-terror business actually started– is not available anywhere.
US wanted to subcontract Afghanistan to NATO
The US Government, in its own hubristic idea of quickly transforming the Middle East, grabbing Iraq –after all a key state from any standpoint– conceived that idea, (at the time, in 2003), of subcontracting Afghanistan (relatively sleepy, then), to NATO; figuring out, (hoping?),that some kind of NATO-led occupation force would keep the country together.
Well, as we now know, it did not happen that way. Iraq proved to be a lot more difficult. Afghanistan has turned out to be a lot worse. The post-Taliban mess, in its own internally and externally torn confusion, in the end was extended to more or less equally friendly territory on the other side of the Afghan border. Pakistan’s North West is now also a huge mess. For the time being, the idea that an Islamabad led force will put things in order in the large region adjacent to Afghanistan is still a distant dream.
End of NATO is Europe does not do more?
But all this, from the picturesque, post card like, lovely European cities (that Americans get when looking at Europe through the nicely tinted eyes of marketers who insist on Europe as this lovely, slow and enchanting oasis of peace, culture and serenity), looks awfully distant and remote. Europe in danger? From Afghanistan/Pakistan? And why? We’ll find some accommodation. There must be…..a way…..Indeed.
Bob Gates said it in Munich…”Either we resolve this mess of unequal contributions to the war effort –I paraphrase– or it is the end of NATO as the primary tool for North Atlantic co-operation”.
If there was trembling within the old European palaces, at the notion that this mighty edifice of Western Power could be unraveled, it did not show.
After the end of the USSR, smaller NATO forces
In 1989, while still working at the Atlantic Council of the United States, I did not expect the so rapid crumbling of the Eastern Empire. Nobody really did. And, at the time, it looked fine. End of an Eastern threat, in a truly existential sense. As a result, defense spending within NATO countrie was cut. The Alliance, whatever its then status, could stay, as it was a reasonably proven tool for communication and for sorting out US-European affairs. Although, hardly an ideal set up, a NATO without meaningful force, was fine; to the extent that no large force was really necessary to protect the Allies from an enemy that had retreated and (militarily) basically ceased to exist.
Afghainstan, a new scenario
But now, Afghanistan, this new thing, has created a new set of problems. Europe seems to have no tools, no means –and especially no wil– to deal with this awkwardly far away country in which, unfortunately, (and here it all gets tricky, as people interpret unclear developments as they please), there is a fertile soil for the amalgamation of anti western, jihad ideas and policies.
The issue again is distance, and a strong desire to continue living just as in those lovely “picturesque post cards” of serene Europe that populate US TV programmes on Public Television (PBS). In that Europe that reasonably well heeled Americans want to go and visit to bathe themselves in proper culture an art, all is beautiful; all is neat, all is quiet and enchanting. In that context of order and quiet, vague, remote places, vague threats, mean little to the average person. There are no imminent dangers of “old fashioned armored divisions across the border”. And so, the Europeans try again to remove themselves from the danger area. They try so hard. The idea (for some at least) is that, just by being there, (in Afghanistan), we are on the bad guys list. We are known and counted. And later on they’ll come after us.
Europe is in denial
Who knows what the best strategy for Afghanistan may be. But a bit more of everything should be at least tried. More material aid, stronger presence, more visible and useful reconstruction, a stronger sense offered to the population that something better for them is in the offing. Are we really saying that the whole of Europe cannot dispatch more than 2000 troops here, 3000 there? And all that with the most intricate set of caveats in terms of “the contingent from this nation will go as far as here…but not beyond”, etc; Is that all there is? Is this all that this NATO Alliance can deliver?
Clearly, this is all it wants to deliver. Allowing this wound between Afghanistan and Pakistan to remain infested and to continue to attract more bad stuff, we’ll do the west no good. But, again, all dires scenarios are in the category of theoretical, possible, not certain.
Even when things were bad Europe was reluctant
I mentioned earlier “armoured divisions across the border”….Indeed.. But we remember those and the minimal mobilizing effect they had. What did those Warsaw Pact quite visible divisions do? Did that “danger” push the Europeans to spend more and build much stronger defenses? Hardly at all.
In the 1980s, (before the end of the old scenario with the collapse of the Soviet Union), in Washington DC we had a complicated policy debate, (we used to call it “burden sharing”), whose ultimate objective was to find the Europeans materially at fault: that is, facts in hand, not delivering on promises to augment defense spending by certain yearly amounts.
Europe’s relaxed attitude about defense a moot point after the end of the USSR
And that did not go anywhere either. Of course, (and Thank God for that!), we’ll never really know what might have happened, had the then Soviets decided to test the actual strength and resolve of that NATO Alliance. Maybe because it would have been messy; maybe because it was about almost immediate nuclear escalation….who knows, really.
Europe’s wishful thinking
But now, after the Soviet demise, and the current danger, (Afghanistan), conveniently located in really distant areas, it appears that Europe can (try and) continue to be what it wants to be: an island of peace within an uncertain international sea. Nothing wrong with that, but only as an aspiration.
The Romans, who were rather no nonsense about all this, put it bluntly, long ago: “If you want peace….Be ready for war”. (“Si vis pacem, para bellum“). Wanting peace is a great goal. Convincing others, in this confused world, that, no matter what they try and do, they shall not prevail, is an entirely different matter.
Real security requires not just pretending that one will take action, but really convincing the other(s) that action will take placea and that it will be swift and deadly. This Europe with lovely landscapes and nice parks does not overtly exude this certainty and determination. Or may be I have been watching too much Europe through the gentle marketing lenses of US Public Television…