The long haul in Afghanistan

Posted in Broader Middle East | 28-Feb-08 | Author: Roger Cohen| Source: International Herald Tribune

NATO Secretary General, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer left, speaks as Afghan President Hamid Karzai looks on during a joint press conference at the presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2008.

BRUSSELS: A whole post-Cold-War European generation has grown up in peace, give or take "some Balkan horror on television," which makes it hard to explain that "it's a political and moral imperative to fight for our core values in the Hindu Kush."

The words are those of Jaap de Hoop Scheffer of the Netherlands, the NATO secretary general. As he utters them, he leans forward, insisting that he doesn't think "Europe is becoming pacifist." But Afghanistan is testing European military resolve. It's the long war. It's Europe's Iraq.

Just back from Afghanistan, where NATO now has some 50,000 troops deployed, de Hoop Scheffer tells me it will be four to five years before international forces can pull back, taking a limited role in support of the emergent Afghan National Army.

"A window of four to five years from now is an interesting window to watch in terms of reaching a situation where our forces are in the background," he says. That takes us to 2013 or thereabouts. I wonder if a Europe more energized by carbon footprints than military footholds has the stomach for that.

Robert Gates, the U.S. defense secretary, has not concealed his concern over European commitment to the better war - better than Iraq, that is.

He's had the honesty to say Iraq dampened European zeal to fight in Afghanistan. He's pleaded for more troops and matériel. He's warned that the alliance risks going "two-tiered," with "some allies willing to fight and die to protect people's security and others who are not."

De Hoop Scheffer is categorical: "I am not overseeing a two-tier alliance." Then he pulls back - "NATO is not monolithic." Among the 26 members there are varying "caveats." For that Latinism read limitations - set by the German, Spanish, Italian and other governments - on when, why and where soldiers will fight and die rather than do the soft-power, school-building, Euro thing.

"As secretary general I will always advocate zero caveats and if zero is not achievable, I will fight for the least possible," he tells me. "But I have to be realistic. If I must choose between forces with caveats or no forces at all, my choice is easily made."

That's understandable: 3,200 German troops in the quiet north are better than none. But as I've said before, it's time for some Bundesmacht, or German war-fighting commitment.

Hauling Afghanistan from the Middle Ages and the Taliban's vestigial clutches will involve every lever of power - economic, social, diplomatic and military. The last of these is not the least. If solidarity dissolves at the point of danger, the war's lost.

Already, Canada, which does front-line stuff in the Afghan south, speaks of withdrawing its 2,500 troops if European allies don't do more. The United States just committed 3,200 additional marines. No better front exists for President Nicolas Sarkozy of France to demonstrate his increased alliance commitment. He should dispatch more French troops.

"We are missing 10 percent of the military requirement we have set ourselves," de Hoop Scheffer says. The shortfall includes close to two dozen training teams for the Afghan Army. "I am not happy until I get what we need. I want 100 percent."

But if NATO gives more, so should President Hamid Karzai. "He can do better in fighting corruption and seeing that non-corrupt police chiefs are appointed," de Hoop Scheffer says.

In one measure of the political disarray, Zalmay Khalilzad, the Afghan-born U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has been getting daily calls from Afghan politicians urging him to run for president next year. He says he won't. Still, the impression is widespread that Karzai's office resembles a tea house.

Karzai blames Pakistan for the Taliban's resurgence. He's not wrong. U.S. policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan has been all over the place. De Hoop Scheffer says "NATO must enter into a serious dialogue with a new Pakistani government soon because those destabilizing Pakistan are the same as those destabilizing Afghanistan."

I see Europeans yawning. Can Waziristan really be a threat to the West? O.K., the frontier regions are where Ayman al-Zawahiri and other Al Qaeda leaders are said to be hiding, but they're isolated. As for the Madrid and London bombings, bad stuff happens.

Insouciance is an alliance failure. NATO has failed to prove its relevance to a post-modern European generation. NATO needs rebranding. It needs to be more hip in getting across where a precious peace came from. De Hoop Scheffer talks of using "kitchen table language."

I'd start with an ad campaign in which Poles or Slovaks enthuse about locking in security and freedom through NATO membership. Ask the Macedonians, Albanians and Croats why they're banging on NATO's door. Ukraine and Georgia should also be welcomed one day: Let the Russians, who once subjugated them, bleat.

Kabul is an unlikely Berlin, but as pivotal.

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