For some time now, transatlantic analysts have warned that the NATO deployment of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and US troops in Afghanistan is on the precipice of unraveling, and with that will usher in grave questions and implications for the future of NATO and transatlantic ties. Given Zbigniew Brzezinski’s pronouncement in his book Second Chance that the drift in transatlantic ties throughout the 1990s was one of two crucial meta-mistakes that undermined the US position globally, there is real cause for concern here.
It seems since the end of the Cold War, NATO has been seeking a new purpose or agenda aside from the friction of new rounds of expansion and the ever-present monitoring of the Balkans. Perhaps mounting tensions with Russia over a premature declaration of Kosovo independence, the missile defense deployments in Eastern Europe, threats of treaty-withdrawals and energy cutoffs can occupy the military alliance for some time, but it seems these will move more into the category of European problems away from a shared portfolio of threats that NATO once held.
For that, a challenge more geographically and conceptually global in nature is required, such as the one posed by the unsavory intersection of economically and politically disenfranchised populations, radical religious majoritarian movements, and weak or failing states (that which the “war on terror” label fails to capture). And of course Afghanistan is the embodiment of this challenge (without the transatlantic scars that inhibit deeper cooperation in Iraq). But if the ISAF in Afghanistan crumbles under the assault of domestic politics, it could signal the beginning of the end of the alliance.
Canada is a thread that could likely unravel the entire transatlantic tapestry. Because of public opinion pressure, Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper needs some troop commitments from other nations, principally European forces that are perceived to be hiding behind national caveats that limit their deployments throughout the country, particularly the hot zones of Helmand, Kandahar, and Uruzgan.
Secretary Gate’s January remarks, though they did not help matters, are not the fundamental reason why European allies are hesitant to commit further troops. Though they too face hostile public opinion, more importantly, I suspect they’re not convinced the US is willing to make the critical policy changes — on counter-narcotics, Pakistan, and Iraq — they believe are necessary to succeed in Afghanistan and justify their assumption of new political and strategic risks.
A fundamental aspect of this is the failed counternarcotics policy that has repeatedly been criticized by Europe, most notably Britain which is supposed to be in charge of counternarcotics. And after six years of such a policy, the US wants to double down on their failed policy with eradication as its centerpiece by pushing for aerial spraying. Most European capitals are opposed to this approach because as a leading researcher has concluded, “eradication first” efforts have empirically failed and often been counterproductive with counternarcotics undermining broader counterterrorism and counterinsurgency efforts.
If the US could acknowledge not only the failures of its dogmatic counter-narcotics but the international political fallout from it, it might consider trading in its long-standing insistence on chemical spraying as a bargaining chip with Europe for more troops, more flexibility on national caveats, or — as Sen. Lieberman has suggested — funding for an international trust fund to grow and sustain the Afghan National Army that could gradually assume some of the duties of the ISAF.
Ultimately, the survival of the alliance will depend on concessions across the Atlantic that commit ones relative weight in manpower or treasure but also consider each others’ strategic and political concerns.
— Sameer Lalwani