The political climate among NATO members is nearing a freezing point. The US and Canada are openly calling on Europeans to send more troops to Afghanistan, and to broaden command’s operational freedom. Behind the new initiative is the imbalanced risk distribution between NATO armed forces, leading to growing losses among American and Canadian troops deployed in the South. Afghanistan is turning into the litmus test of the alliance.
The only decision that can come from the informal meeting with NATO defense ministers on February 7 and 8 in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, is the declaration of the year 2008 as the year of military decisions. The NATO Council will subsequently agree. Despite repetition, the evidence that NATO member states and their partners could win in Afghanistan isn’t improving. Of course NATO armed forces can’t destroy the last Taliban pockets of resistance in the furthest reaches of the Hindu Kush valley. They also don’t have to. NATO armed forces need to concentrate on the regions that are most important for the basic provision of the people, the building of state and nation, as well as the rebuilding of the infrastructure. These areas need to be cleared of the Taliban and held.
The recent positive experiences in Iraq show that it doesn’t make much sense to hunt terrorists out of certain areas without taking measures to prevent their return thereafter. If the war in Afghanistan continues to be run as it has been up until now, then a military victory will not be possible. It will remain a stalemate. The Taliban can’t defeat NATO armed forces, just as they themselves can not be defeated.
This “War of Attrition” will be decided on the NATO member states’ home front, not in Afghanistan. The differing numbers of casualties among NATO armed forces is straining solidarity between members and is losing support among the people. NATO members are losing the fight for “hearts and souls” at home. Parliaments are being pushed ever increasingly to refuse the extension of their mandate.
At the end of this development stands a defeat of NATO that will permanently destroy it’s credibility. Moreover, it hands Afghanistan back to the Taliban. Afghanistan would once again be a “safe haven” for terrorists in and out of Pakistan and Iraq, which could also threaten Europe. The alternative is not as difficult as is often speculated.
The NATO defense minister must come to three conclusions in Vilnius:
- NATO member states must finally bring the forces and supplies to Afghanistan that have been agreed upon multiple times in Brussels.
- For a limited period of time, additional forces with heavy weapons must be sent in. These can either be NATO Response Forces or EU Battle Groups.
- National caveats must be reduced to a minimum.
No further intelligence is required for implementation. The commanders on the ground know how they can neutralize the Taliban. They only need the necessary supplies and greater operational freedom. Along with the strengthened military efforts, the UN and EU in Afghanistan also need to build up the structures and regional organizations that, under the protection of soldiers, can help rebuild civil society. At the moment, the EU, for example, is miserably failing to rebuild the Afghan police.
The work of countless NGOs in Afghanistan must be controlled and coordinated by the UN and the EU. Military leaders need competent civil partners with educated staff, who are in the position to develop and implement intermediate and long-term civil operations plans.
NATO defense ministers should act, fully aware of the fact that the West will not be granted a second chance in Afghanistan.
There is no excuse for failure.
Should the Europeans, along with the NATO general secretary, once again fail to comply, NATO will be pushed into its biggest political crisis up to this point. NATO would degenerate into a “Coalition of the Unwilling” of little worth in the eyes of the North American NATO states.
Brigadier General (ret.) Dieter Farwick is the Global Editor-in-Chief of World Security Network. He was a close aid to former German Defense Minister, later NATO Secretary General Manfred Woerner and is author of five books on defense policy. Translated by Samantha Ferrell
Related Materials from the Atlantic Community
- Executive Summary: The Afghanistan Mission: A Hard Sell in Germany
- Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg: Afghans Respond Favorably to NATO Efforts in Afghanistan
- Nanne Zwagerman: A Shared Mission in Afghanistan?