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William Pfaff--"Nato's Fatal Flaw"--2/7/08

NATO's Fatal Flaw

William Pfaff

Paris, February 7, 2008 – These are difficult days for NATO, for reasons few are prepared to admit. The difficulty is finding combat troops for Afghanistan. This is treated by Washington as a failure of political courage due to misinformed public opinion in Europe, potentially correctable if sufficient pressure is applied. It is no such thing.

Washington wants more European NATO troops in active combat roles. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, after an undiplomatic disparagement of the professional competence of NATO troops already engaged in southern Afghanistan (Americans know better how to do these things...), says he fears that NATO is "evolving into a two-tiered alliance in which you have some allies ready to fight and die in order to protect people's security and others who are not."

The ones who are not, according to Gates, are notably the Germans, who are performing the training and reconstruction duties they signed up for in the north of Afghanistan, but whose government has refused to move them into a combat role in the south against the Taliban, who are retaking the territory lost during the first American intervention into their country in 2001.

Washington critics say the Germans and certain other Europeans think their role in Afghanistan is that of "an armed peace corps rather than as a real war-fighting coalition."

That's exactly it. NATO was signed up by Washington to help in the reconstruction of Afghanistan, not to fight a second war there, this time to keep the ethnically Pathan Taliban forces from reclaiming their own country, which, as they see it, is under foreign, western, infidel occupation.

German public opinion objects to the war, and both German and British officers have criticized the methods and objective of U.S. policy. Many feel there has to be a political solution accommodating legitimate interests of the Pathans, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and in the region (some 40 million in all).

Some NATO governments, and some European public opinion, supports U.S. policy, but others see the U.S. as engaged in the same program of imposing a weak foreign-supported government on the Afghans as it has been pursuing, at great human and material costs, in Iraq.

Whatever the merits of that, there is a basic problem here. The Europeans will face it as they try to establish a "common foreign and security policy" for a European Union extending from Portugal and Sweden to Romania and Bulgaria. Beyond an elementary and shared wish to preserve a common security and independence, people and governments don't agree on foreign policy. Surely there is nothing surprising in this.

When NATO was created there was a common interest and policy: to assure western Europe that the wartime allies, including the United States and Canada, would take common action to defend against the extension of Soviet military power in Europe, and support West European governments against the threat, which existed, of revolutionary insurrection or coup d'etat by certain national Communist parties.

That was a long way from intervening in Central Asia, in a country of which they know next to nothing, to support what may well prove an unsuccessful effort to sustain an American-sponsored government on Afghanistan, against powerful domestic resistance.

They see no threat to them, or to NATO Europe, from Afghanistan, whereas Americans believe in a global terrorist threat. The Europeans find unconvincing the effort to frame the Afghanistan issue in terms of terrorism versus international peace and democracy – a global ideological war.

Even the newest members of NATO, the most concerned to stay on the good side of the United States, are merely interested in their own security vis-à-vis Russia, and against those separatist or irredentist disputes that continue in their own regions – not in Afghanistan.

Immediately after the cold war, the United States lost interest in NATO. The allies wanted it continued because of their geographical proximity to the turmoil of post-Soviet Russia. Then it was seen that the offer of cooperation and eventual membership in NATO -- an implicit western security guarantee -- was a powerful incentive to the ex-Warsaw Pact countries to reform their political institutions and armies.

Then came the Balkan crisis, where the U.S. was initially unwilling to become involved. It later found NATO a useful vehicle and source of support when it finally did intervene, but afterwards the American military reaction was "never again." Alliance cooperation and coordination was judged more trouble than it had been worth.

When after the 9/11 attacks the NATO allies spontaneously offered support to Washington, the U.S. said no; it had its own plans and wanted no alliance interference. That's the way things remained until Washington needed reinforcements for Afghan stabilization. Naturally, the same old difficulties have now arisen.

There is only one model for an effective military alliance. It is that the group has strong common views and powerful common interests, and is willing to consult and compromise. If the common view is not there, the alliance is a sham. Washington likes to pretend that in dealing with Afghanistan, it's still the old NATO. But it's not. In the so-called war on terror, the political substance of alliance is missing.

© Copyright by Tribune Media Services International. All Rights Reserved.

This article comes from William PFAFF
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