U.S. and NATO allies facing hard questions

Posted in NATO , United States | 18-Mar-09 | Author: Judy Dempsey| Source: International Herald Tribune

German Chancellor Angela Merkel

BERLIN: At NATO?s 60th anniversary summit meeting next month, the stage is set for celebrations and self-congratulations. But President Barack Obama may have to face some very uncomfortable questions about the alliance?s future.

The meeting, at least on paper, is a cause for pride. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, established by the United States in 1949 to defend Western Europe from the military might of the Soviet Union, will celebrate its 60th anniversary. That is no small feat for a trans-Atlantic alliance, especially since the end of the Cold War in 1991, as its relevance has repeatedly been called into question.

The Obama administration is threatening to sideline NATO in Afghanistan, the alliance?s most important theater of operations. Faced with a deteriorating military and political situation, particularly in the south, Mr. Obama has decided to send an additional 17,000 troops to Afghanistan. If the Europeans do not match this new commitment ? and there is no sign that they will ? the U.S. military will quietly push NATO out of decision-making there.

The scene for a U.S. takeover of operations is already set. The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, or I.S.A.F., and Operation Enduring Freedom, the special U.S anti-insurgency mission, are both led by American generals. NATO says the two missions are separate. In reality, the United States is in charge of both and can push out the Europeans at any time.

?How else would you expect the U.S. to react?? said Marcel de Haas, security expert at the Netherlands Institute for International Relations, Clingendael. ?NATO is divided over defense spending, Russia, further enlargement and generating troops for Afghanistan. Obama is finding out that almost no European country is prepared to deliver anything more to Afghanistan.?

It is not the first time that the United States would turn away from the alliance it founded. The NATO bombing campaign of Serbia in 1999, for example, was a terrible setback. The United States ? and its president at the time, Bill Clinton ? was frustrated by NATO?s ?decisions by committee,? and Europe?s lack of basic equipment in areas such as logistics and communications.

The Bush administration felt the same way. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, NATO for the first time in history invoked Article V of the alliance charter, which obliges allies to give a member help against an aggressor. The United States, however, coolly rejected the offer. Morale in NATO slumped further when Washington, as a snub after NATO?s divisions over U.S. plans to invade Iraq, opted for ?coalitions of the willing? to support the invasion.

When NATO decided to take over the command of the multinational I.S.A.F. forces in Afghanistan in 2003, it desperately wanted to prove to the United States that it could cope with new threats and even operate ?out of area,? far from its traditional base in Europe.

The problem is that while NATO and the United States already have 61,900 troops on the ground in Afghanistan, the European contingents still lack essential equipment such as helicopters, field hospitals, F-16 fighters and aircraft to transport tanks and troops across the country.

Also, Germany, which has more than 3,600 soldiers on the ground, and other countries are restricted by ?national caveats.? They cannot patrol during certain hours, they cannot venture beyond a certain limit and they cannot be sent to the south. The United States has given up asking Germany to help in the south. It is a German election year, and Angela Merkel, the conservative chancellor, wants nothing to do with Afghanistan and war.

Washington?s truest allies in Afghanistan are a small group of countries that have borne the brunt of the fighting in the south: Australia, Britain, Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands and Poland. This ?Group of the South? recently convened in Edinburgh, Scotland, to discuss strategy and tactics with the United States, much to the chagrin of some NATO members, who said they should have been invited as well.

?The administration is moving away from NATO to coalitions of the willing because of the grudging support from the alliance,? said Stephen Flanagan, senior vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

The NATO summit meeting may present a last chance to reunite the alliance. Mr. Obama and his generals have gone out of their way to explain to their European allies the necessity of bringing more security to Afghanistan. ?Obama does not want the U.S. to go it alone, fearing it could become a quagmire,? Mr. Flanagan said. ?Obama would prefer to have as many allies as possible.?

If the Europeans refuse to go along, there will be a price to pay. They will lose influence if NATO as a whole is marginalized. But influence is what the Europeans have been seeking since the end of the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Then, they complained about having to ?dry the dishes? after U.S.-led military operations ? meaning that they had no say over how the wars were conducted, but were then expected to pay for reconstruction.

Spurred by Britain and France to redress this imbalance, Europe tried to build up its own defense capabilities and structures. But most European countries, including Germany, Italy and Spain, have never been willing to reconcile the use of soft-power ? diplomacy, peacekeeping missions, and development assistance ? with serious hard power that involves combat but also more defense spending.

Even when the Europeans try to use soft power, the results have been often miserable. Germany?s training of the Afghan police was a failure and Italy?s record in establishing a strong Afghan judiciary is poor.

In the longer term, the sidelining of NATO would also endanger the security umbrella with which the United States has covered Europe since 1949.

?NATO is already being down-graded,? said Jan Techau, security expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations. ?Just when we should be coming up with ideas on how to deal with Russia, Afghanistan, even NATO enlargement and a new doctrine for the alliance, the Europeans are looking inwards.?

It would seem as if NATO did not have that much to celebrate at its summit meeting after all.