THE NORTH Atlantic Treaty Organization was created in 1949 to contain communist expansionism in Europe. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the widespread expectation was that NATO would go the way of the Warsaw Pact. Instead, the alliance’s role has grown since the end of the Cold War. In 1995, it fought its first war, to pacify Bosnia, followed by the 1999 conflict over Kosovo, where a NATO peacekeeping contingent remains. But it is in Afghanistan, a country about as remote as you can get from the Fulda Gap in Germany -- where NATO once prepared to fight the Red Army -- that the North Atlantic alliance faces its latest, greatest test.
In 2003, NATO took command of the International Security Assistance Force, which had been created to supplement the efforts of a U.S.-led coalition in stabilizing the onetime lair of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. At first, the ISAF was limited to Kabul, but it gradually expanded to assume control of the relatively peaceful northern and western provinces. This August, it will take control of the far more dangerous areas in the south, where a major Taliban offensive is underway. If all goes well, the ISAF could take over the equally insecure eastern provinces as early as this fall. This would give NATO the lead role throughout Afghanistan, although more than 10,000 U.S. troops would continue to operate independently in the country as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.
Last week, I flew from Brussels to Kabul and Kandahar along with U.S. Marine Gen. James Jones, NATO’s military commander, to see how its operations are progressing. Our delegation -- which included journalists, retired generals and government officials -- saw some reasons for optimism as well as considerable cause for concern.
On the plus side, the ISAF is that rare coalition in which soldiers from more than 30 nations, including such non-NATO allies as Australia and Macedonia, work together in relative harmony. In the Combined Joint Operations Center in Kabul, soldiers from different nations work side by side at computer terminals. Everyone communicates in English. The only way you can tell them apart is by the national flags on their shoulder patches.
Our group saw a small example of cooperation in action as we rattled over Kabul’s abysmal roads in vehicles operated by the British army and protected by a contingent of hulking German military policemen in baseball caps that advertise gun maker Heckler & Koch.
Of course, protecting a group of visiting VIPs is one thing; protecting the people of southern Afghanistan from the Taliban and their narco-trafficker allies is a lot more difficult. This task has fallen primarily to 3,000 British, 2,200 Canadian and 1,500 Dutch troops. The other members of the ISAF prefer to serve in less perilous areas.
This points to one of NATO’s biggest challenges -- getting members to volunteer troops, and to do so without placing too many caveats on their deployment. In addition to limits of geography (many troops won’t operate in the south or east), there are also tactical limits. For instance, some soldiers are not allowed by their governments to use chemicals like tear gas to disperse unruly crowds. This can become a major headache for ISAF commanders when figuring out how to deal with riots of the kind that rocked Kabul in May.
In theory, the ISAF is supposed to concentrate on the softer side of counterinsurgency, providing development aid and security, while U.S. troops focus on hunting down bad guys. In practice, the distinction can be hard to draw. NATO troops in the south can engage in “proactive self-defense,” whatever that means. Fleshing out this nebulous mandate will be up to commanders on the spot, and the widespread expectation is that British and Canadian troops will be more aggressive than their more cautious Dutch colleagues.
It is a daunting task that NATO has taken on in a country that ranks 173 out of 178 on a basic index of human development, and one whose economy is more dependent on illegal drugs and foreign aid than any other nation. But one diplomat on our trip discerned a silver lining in this dark reality. Having served in Iraq, he found that Iraqis’ expectations were unrealistically high because they remembered boom times in the 1970s and 1980s. Afghans, by contrast, have known nothing but war and poverty for the last quarter of a century. Their expectations may be just low enough for NATO to satisfy.