Redefining Burden Sharing
For an organization that is probably the most successful political/military alliance in history, there is a strange tendency to get nervous when problems arise within NATO. The current argument over Afghanistan is the most recent example.
For six decades, the alliance has been through any number of crises, many of which have been held up as signaling its imminent end. Yet, NATO has not only outlived them but in the meantime has expanded its membership, with even more candidates knocking on the door. Along most of the way, we had general agreements on our benchmarks, underlining them with a sense that we had a common stake in our goals, even if we disagreed on methods.
The foundation on which NATO was built in 1949 has long since been transformed. The end of the Soviet Union and its massive threat to the west generated continuous questions about the mission and the methods of NATO. However, NATO has continued to function, be it in the Balkans, in Afghanistan, dealing with counterterrorism, or with an unpredictable Russia.
The fact there has been from the start an asymmetry of resources within NATO has never been a reason to declare the alliance in trouble. The enormous capability of U.S. defense forces has continued to expand during these past sixty years and will not stop in the future. The European Union's aspiration to generate more defense capabilities has been hampered by both political debates within each of the member states as well as a lack of consensus on how to integrate command and control of them. Germany, France and Britain remain the leading defense forces in the EU but there remain differences among them in capacities, defense budgets, and the political context in which the use of these capacities is decided and implemented. But there is no lack of consensus that Europe ought to be able to do more in the name of its own defense. The central question is how they get there.
And while the Europeans are trying to sort that out, the question arises as to how to generate the best mix of resources to respond to current challenges to the alliance. NATO did that in the Balkans and it may well wind up doing it again if the tensions there increase following the elections in Kosovo and Serbia. The more pressing issue now is the situation in Afghanistan and how the future of that troubled country will look if the Taliban insurgents continue to undermine its stability six years after their overthrow.
Arguing Over Increased Responsibility
The U.S. has been beating the drum for some time about increasing forces in Afghanistan and in the past few days there has been a lot of talk about whether Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has been targeting the Germans in particular to increase their forces and to get them engaged in the more volatile southern front where most of the fighting is taking place. The almost 3,000 troops Germany has in place in Afghanistan have been stationed in the north of the country where their assignments have been primarily to aid in reconstruction efforts.
While Gates denies he is singling out the Germans, he did testify last week before Congress that the alliance is appearing increasingly as a two-tier system in which a few members do most of the fighting while others choose not to engage. And he did include Germany along the latter group without explicitly saying so.
Germany's Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung has replied that the German mandate remains focused on the north and that he will not be redirecting troops to the south as requested by Gates, apart from making a contingent of some 200 available to help out in an emergency. Chancellor Merkel has also backed him up on that position. Jung argued that the value of the work going on in the north must not be endangered by pulling troops away from it. Gates is saying that the one need should not exclude meeting the other.
Proportionally Sharing the Burden
Here we have in a nutshell an argument over benchmarks when it comes to measuring effective burden sharing for the alliance. As many of the world's security experts gather for the annual International Security Conference in Munich this weekend, the issue of burden sharing will certainly be on center stage.
The burden sharing argument has to be framed around two questions: what are the burdens and what is the strategy for which they are required. It is the latter question which has been a source of tension across the Atlantic. While the goal of stabilizing Afghanistan is shared, the path to that goal is not. The American approach has been to stress the need to defeat the Taliban and eliminate the threats to the country. European approaches have stressed the need to gain the support of the Afghanis to create a basis for their own capacity to defend themselves. That is to be achieved by helping to strengthen the infrastructure of the country, including the military and police. Obviously both efforts are going to be needed over the long run and both efforts constitute burdens for the alliance.
The effort which Berlin is making to concentrate its forces in the north has been and still is welcomed by the alliance. What has caused tensions with Berlin is its apparent unwillingness to increase its forces in the campaign in the south, particularly at a time when there is increasing anticipation of a major spring Taliban offensive. What is heating up among the allies is the argument about the proportion of those carrying the fighting burden and those who are not. With a well-trained and equipped army, Germany is of course going to be on top of the list of those to be asked to take up more of that burden.
Of course there remain some serious concerns about the ways in which the strategy in Afghanistan is being managed. Those concerns focus on how to better organize command and control of all the resources available to the alliance. Here the U.S. approach can be faulted for not having been able to better manage that process within the alliance.
What has been plaguing the operation is the ability of some countries to restrict deployment of forces. And this is where Germany is vulnerable. The Bundestag has political command and control of the mandate of its forces and there is little evidence that the coalition in Berlin is going to allow for an expanded mandate, let alone the need to keep it in place as is when renewal comes up in the fall. With a recent poll suggesting that 86 percent of the public wants the troops pulled out of Afghanistan, politicians are nervous about speaking out on the need to expand the mandate, let alone enlarge it with significant numbers of combat troops.
In the meantime, Germany is going to be occupied with a much needed discussion about its own priorities and willingness to act on them in Afghanistan now but also elsewhere in the future. There has been stronger support in Germany for the engagement in the Balkans during the past several years, evidence that when the mandate is clear, the support is forthcoming. Following 9/11, Afghanistan was seen in Germany as the war with legitimacy whereas Iraq was not. Meanwhile, the mood of the country has changed, with many feeling that the engagement there has actually increased Germany's vulnerabilities to terror.
Afghanistan poses problems in Germany because the sense of threat is not seen as imminent. And it is evidently not enough to argue that Afghanistan is a test for the viability of NATO. In actual fact, what will happen in Afghanistan affects not only that country but also the viability of helping other nations in need of stabilizing themselves. But the German debate is influenced by ideas that NATO may have lost its mission and its method in the past decade, appearing more as a relic of the Cold War.
What is missing in Germany and elsewhere in Europe is a persuasive set of arguments about the connection between Afghanistan and the larger framework of dealing with terrorism at home and abroad, between the roots of instability and the reach it can have around the world. That discussion has been in some ways overshadowed by the clash over the war in Iraq. But in the longer run, it may be that Afghanistan is going to pose an equally critical challenge as Iraq for as many years to come.
Despite this, the outlook for finding common ground across the Atlantic on Afghanistan is not promising in the near future. The United States is going to be preoccupied with itself for the rest of this year's election campaign and it will be well into 2009 before the new president is equipped with a fully functioning cabinet. Once in office, however, and regardless of the White House winner, the pressure on Europe to ratchet up their capabilities in Afghanistan will continue. Meanwhile, Germany goes into its full election mode in 2009 in advance of national elections in the fall, leaving any new initiatives held hostage until we find out whether the present coalition in Berlin will continue or whether a new one emerges. In any case, that suggests that we might be looking at 2010 before we can get a new grip on this challenge. And the situation in Afghanistan will not be getting much better in the interim.
We need to rethink our benchmarks within NATO but also within our respective national debates with regard to how we measure our capabilities, as well as our commitments to these challenges. It is not only the alliance at stake; it is also our shared credibility. Afghanistan exemplifies the twenty-first century challenges we will be facing for the foreseeable future. And they won't go away.
This essay appeared in the February 8, 2008, AICGS Advisor.