NATO Defense Ministers Fight in Vilnus Over Afghanistan
Richard Weitz «View Bio

The military conflict in Afghanistan dominated the informal NATO Defense Ministers meeting in Vilnius on February 7-8. Although the ministers sought to downplay their differences and highlight their achievements, it quickly became apparent that their governments disagree sharply over how best to promote peace and prosperity in the country. The chaos in neighboring Pakistan has reinforced the urgency of shoring up NATO’s commitment to Afghanistan at a time when the Kabul government is losing support among Afghan citizens frustrated by decades or war and poverty.

BACKGROUND: The NATO defense ministers strived to highlight recent progress in the Afghan security and political situation. According to the most comprehensive public opinion poll ever conducted in Afghanistan, however, approval of President Hamid Karzai and his policies remains high among Afghans but is declining.

The recent “Afghanistan in 2007: A Survey of the Afghan People,” undertaken under the auspices of the Asia Foundation, involved 6,263 face-to-face interviews conducted by a trained team of 494 Afghan interviewers, of mixed gender and ethnicity, across all 34 provinces. It found that Afghans generally remain optimistic about their country’s future. Respondents expressed particular approval of government-funded reconstruction activities. They also endorsed Kabul’s policies regarding education, public health, and foreign relations.

But the study also found major sources of dissatisfaction at the national level. These included limited job opportunities in a sluggish economy and pervasive official corruption. At the local level, respondents complained about limited electricity, unemployment, inadequate water supplies, and low literacy rates. The Afghan National Police and Afghan National Army remain the most popular government institutions, receiving support from more than 80 percent of those surveyed, but less than half of the respondents expressed confidence in the state court system, political parties, or the local militias. Afghan opinions diverged sharply on whether their security was improving, which reflects the influence of local factors (crime rates more than terrorism) on perceptions of public safety.

In January 2008, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, Afghanistan’s Foreign Minster from June 2002 until March 2006, told an audience at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington that, “From a situation where President Karzai was supported by an absolute majority of the people, and later on elected by an absolute majority vote, the situation as of now is where the political atmosphere is one of absolute mistrust between the players.” Abdullah also spoke of a “growing gap between the government and the people,” maintaining that “there is a lot of opposition to the government” even if only few people actually joined the Taliban.

Both Abdullah’s assessment and the survey results suggest that the Afghan government’s inability to provide essential public services, especially public safety, could create an opening for the local Taliban to establish a kind of parallel public administration. NATO, ISAF, and other international organization and foreign governments can further strengthen Afghan institutions, but the perennial problems the alliance has encountered in making the necessary commitments suggest a potentially worrisome lack of will to sustain the long-term effort required.

IMPLICATIONS: The one point on which the NATO defense ministers agreed was their collective need to provide greater assistance to the beleaguered Karzai government. NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer urged the member governments to increase their military contributions and other efforts in the country: “The mission demands the sharing of responsibility and risks, but we haven’t arrived at that point yet.”

NATO took charge of Afghanistan’s military security in 2006, when the alliance formally assumed responsibility for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in that country. Since then, alliance members have repeatedly quarreled over the size of troop contingents each should provide, where they should serve, and under what conditions.

ISAF currently has over 42,000 personnel, from 40 nations, including all 26 NATO countries. The U.S. force contingent—which includes both 17,000 service members assigned to ISAF and 12,000 personnel under a separate command dedicated to special counterterrorist missions and training the Afghan Army—is the largest. Britain, Italy, Canada, and the Netherlands have also made major troop contributions, but ISAF commanders continue to complain about shortages in key mission areas as well as about the limitations (“caveats”) that the national governments impose on the use of their forces.

Despite repeated pleas by NATO’s political and military leaders, many troop-supplying countries refuse to allow their personnel to operate in the more dangerous southern parts of Afghanistan, except in an emergency. At their November 2006 summit in Riga, NATO governments agreed to provide additional ground troops and relax the national caveats limiting their use, but NATO and U.S. representatives have chastised some European governments for not fully fulfilling their pledges.

Most of the recent controversy has involved the 3,000 German troops deployed in Afghanistan. Along with many other countries that have contributed smaller military contingents, German leaders have adamantly refused to deploy large numbers of their forces to sectors of the country that are experiencing more intense fighting. As a result, the American, British, Canadian, and Dutch forces have had to counter the Taliban’s resurgence in southern Afghanistan without direct German military assistance.

German officials defend their efforts by noting that its northern sector encompasses 40 percent of the country. Besides the ground force deployments and the anti-terror naval patrols, they also point to their decision to dispatch Tornado Reconnaissance aircraft to Afghanistan last March despite opinion polls showing that over two-thirds of the German respondents opposed the move. Since Riga, German authorities have stressed that, like other NATO troops, their forces remain ready to operate anywhere in Afghanistan in an emergency.

Germans remain divided about their military involvement in Afghanistan. Only one party represented in the Bundestag, the isolated Left Party (Linkspartei), has actually demanded a complete withdrawal. Nevertheless, many influential Germans disapprove of what they see as Washington’s overly militarized approach towards resolving the Afghan conflict, which they fear is leading to excessive civilian casualties and alienating Muslim communities in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The German public widely prefers that German soldiers engage exclusively in civic reconstruction and other non-combat missions.

In a February 10 speech at the 44th annual Munich Security Conference, Gates urged that, “The alliance must put aside any theology that attempts clearly to divide civilian and military operations.” He warned of the potentially disastrous consequences of such an approach for an alliance of democracies adhering to the principle of collective security: “some allies ought not to have the luxury of opting only for stability and civilian operations, thus forcing other allies to bear a disproportionate share of the fighting and the dying.”

The effects of Gates’ exhortations will likely become evident only in early April, when NATO holds its next heads-of-state summit in Bucharest. Yet, recent experience is not overly encouraging. Almost exactly one year earlier, on February 11, 2007, the then newly appointed U.S. Secretary of Defense told the 43rd session of the Munich Security Conference that it would be a “mark of shame” for NATO to fail to mobilize sufficient resources to win the Afghan war: “An alliance consisting of the world’s most prosperous industrialized nations, with over two million people in uniform – not even counting the American military – should be able to generate the manpower and materiel needed to get the job done in Afghanistan.”

Although the allies pledged at the time to overcome these problems, and some members did subsequently increase their military and economic assistance, the fundamental problems of inadequate overall troop levels, excessive restraints on their employment, and recurring efforts at buck passing rather than genuine burden sharing remain.

CONCLUSIONS: NATO governments and the other major ISAF contributors, such as Australia, are currently debating whether to appoint an international civilian coordinator to better integrate the diverse political and military efforts. For example, the incumbent could serve as a point of contact for the numerous foreign governments engaged in Afghanistan. He or she could also improve coordination among the Provisional Reconstruction Teams and with nongovernmental organizations, which continue to play a major role in Afghan reconstruction.

Until recently, Paddy Ashdown seemed the consensus choice for the position, but the Karzai government vetoed his appointment, probably because the Afghan President feared that such a strong figure would further weaken his authority. Even if a new person gains the job, it is unclear how he or she could induce the recalcitrant allies to considerably bolster their own force contributions at a time when many European publics seem preoccupied with homegrown terrorism and other security concerns.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Richard Weitz is Senior Fellow and Director for Project Management at the Hudson Institute.