NATO's Uncertain Future Afghanistan Looms over Riga

How can NATO meet the security needs of the 21st century? Important questions like this are getting the short shrift in Riga, as leaders struggle to get beyond differences over Afghanistan.

By Joshua Gallu in Riga, Latvia

Latvian soldiers gather outside the NATO Summit in Riga.

Latvian soldiers gather outside the NATO Summit in Riga.

A thick blanket of gray looms over Riga, but the Latvian capital refuses to slip into obscurity. Its steepled skyline pins the darkness up like a tent. Gazing east towards Russia, though, what lies beyond the Baltic state quickly disappears into the haze.

Indeed, there is little clarity in Riga this week, as the leaders of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member countries gather to discuss the future of their aging trans-Atlantic alliance. If one thing is clear, it's that the future is not. Should NATO consolidate its existing trans-Atlantic alliance, or should it start admitting new members from further afield?

The Cold War is over, isn’t it?

The nature of security has changed dramatically since NATO was built out of the ashes of World War II in 1949 to protect Western Europe from encroaching Communism that had already reached its backdoor. Today, the fight against terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction have replaced the Cold War concern that the Soviet Union would storm westward. Instead, NATO is fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, trying to bring stability to Darfur and patrolling the Mediterranean in the War against Terror. It’s filling an international intervention vaccuum that the United Nations has been unable to satisfy.

The United States for one, is keen to expand the alliance to include other democratic countries that share a common set of security goals -- particularly those non-NATO states that have been helping out in Afghanistan, like Australia, South Korea and Japan. But critics of the proposal say it would merely dilute NATO's mission.

As the demands on NATO have grown, so have the tensions within it. The alliance took a major drubbing when the US found greater support from non-NATO countries for the Iraq war than it did from some of its oldest Western European Cold War partners. That tension hasn't yet abated entirely. And traces of it can still be felt today in other debates, like criticism from some NATO partners against Germany for its current unwillingness to send troops into the dangerous regions of southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban is resurgent and coalition casualties are rapidly increasing. The US wants to broaden support for its strategic priorities by bringing more countries into the fold that have offered the greatest degree of support in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Daniel Hamilton, director of the Center for Trans-Atlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC, told SPIEGEL ONLINE he believes that NATO needs to focus less on expanding geographically than it does on consolidating its mission among existing NATO members. In addition to "combat, stabilization and humanitarian missions outside of the NATO area," this would also mean "guarding sea approaches and critical infrastructure" inside NATO countries' own territory. "No country is home alone," he said, "and no country can ensure the safety of its homeland without cooperation with its closest allies." Hamilton also referred to Germany’s White Book on the future strategy of the German army, saying: "The distinctions between internal and external security have vanished."

Junior partners

Others take a more expansionist view. Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served as National Security Adviser under former President Jimmy Carter, said on Tuesday that NATO has no real choice other than to open its doors to other countries -- even if they aren't part of the alliance -- to help with missions. "I frankly don't think we can do it on our own," he said.

Brzezinski argued that NATO should cooperate with those countries without forcing them to carry the full burden of NATO membership. Instead, he suggested they could play a "selective role" and not get pulled into every NATO mission. In fact, it's a right that is already exercised, de facto, by a number of long-time NATO members, including Germany, France, Italy and Spain, which have placed major restrictions on what their troops can or cannot do in Afghanistan.

But it's a catch-22 situation. The fact that some countries are exercising selective participation in NATO’s operations is currently exacerbating existing tensions over NATO's future. Canadians in particular have been angered in recent weeks by the unequal division of work between NATO members in Afghanistan. Since operations began, Canadians have lost 42 soldiers in Aghanistan. Asked by a journalist on Tuesday in Riga whether his country's public support for the mission in Afghanistan would fade if other country's are unwilling drop their reservations about sending soldiers into higher risk parts of the country, Canadian Foreign Minister Peter MacKay offered a frank: "Yes. Losing young men and women is the surest way for that to happen."

For their part, these countries have been defensive about their non-combat roles. Berlin, for example, has been painstaking in its efforts to create a model in northern Afghanistan, where it is seeking to rebuild the small country using what it has been dubbed armed development aid instead of waging a bloody campaign against the Taliban.

Cracks in the alliance

The ongoing row over the level of commitments in Afghanistan is overshadowing any debate over the long-term priorities of the alliance. NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has put maximum effort into building political support for the mission, but international doubts over whether the ISAF force can be successful in southern Afghanistan are growing. Earlier this week, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov told DER SPIEGEL that the current situation is "very reminiscent" of the late 1980s when the Soviet Union had to withdraw from Afghanistan. That, after failing to achieve with 110,000 troops what NATO is trying to do with 30,000. Undeterred, de Hoop Scheffer called Afghanistan "mission possible" in his opening remarks to summit delegates on Tuesday morning.

At the same time, de Hoop Scheffer made little attempt to conceal his frustration with countries that have been exercising non-combat privileges, or so-called national caveats. "Just as we need combat forces that can also handle reconstruction, we can ill afford reconstruction armies that cannot handle combat."

US President George W. Bush echoed his sentiment on Tuesday evening, rattling off a list of countries fighting in Afghanistan’s south -- a list less notable for who is on it than who is not. Germany and other caveat countries were only alluded to when President Bush said "member nations must accept difficult assignments if we expect to be successful."


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