NATO’s unhappy warriors

A. Wess Mitchell is director of research at the Washington-based Center for European Policy Analysis.

At next week’s NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, history will be made when an American president, cowboy hat in hand, literally begs Europe for help in Afghanistan. For weeks, high-ranking U.S. officials have traversed the “old” continent, beseeching its capitals for anything in lace-up boots and camouflage. Spare a tank, Germany? How about a mothballed helicopter, Italy? Say no, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has warned, and NATO will be “effectively destroyed,” its members forever consigned to two tiers -- a fighting first and a lazy second.

Fortunately for everyone, Washington will get its reinforcements and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization will survive another year. When the conference-room doors close, the pledges will flow in: a battalion here, a commando squad there. With the probable exception of France, however, the new forces are likely to come not from NATO’s harassed second-stringers, but from members of its overworked, underappreciated “first” tier, most of whom already have troops at the war’s hottest fronts.

Three of the countries in this group are already well known. For years, the British, Canadians and Dutch have held the line in Afghanistan’s casualty-prone southern and eastern provinces. But they are not alone. Alongside them are some of NATO’s newest members, the former communist countries of Central Europe. Though rarely mentioned in the media, these nations -- many small, few wealthy -- have often answered NATO calls for help when many larger Western militaries demurred. In the east of Afghanistan, Polish combat teams patrol the Al Qaeda-infested Pakistani border. In the south, Estonian light infantry, Romanian mountain troops and Lithuanian, Polish and Czech special forces have helped repulse Taliban offensives.

All told, about 3,000 Central European troops are in Afghanistan. Two new NATO members, Poland and Czech Republic, already have responded to the latest call for reinforcements. Answering Canadian threats to withdraw unless NATO sent 1,000 fresh troops, Warsaw pledged 400 soldiers -- its second increase in 18 months and a move that has done much to salve alliance wounds before the summit has even started.


This is a very different picture than is painted by some American commentators. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, military expert Andrew Bacevich complained that the new members had “diluted” NATO’s military capabilities. Ted Galen Carpenter, a prominent Washington think-tanker, has called them “security consumers” that bring new burdens but “add next to nothing to America’s already vast military power.”

In fact, they’re adding quite a lot -- the equivalent of a U.S. brigade, to be exact. For every soldier from Krakow or Brno who searches a Taliban cave, a soldier from Kansas City or Biloxi doesn’t have to. Together, the Central Europeans and other first-tier members may be the best hope for winning in Afghanistan and for extending the life of NATO.

But the first-tier countries are not a happy lot. As Canada’s recent warnings made clear, their military contingents, outnumbered and exhausted, are near the breaking point. Making matters worse, officials from first-tier countries say, is U.S. heavy-handedness, on and off the battlefield.

Two changes in U.S. policy are needed to shore up their support.

First, we must learn to criticize less. In the lead-up to Bucharest, American officials have publicly chided NATO allies for not fighting as well as U.S. troops. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Gates complained that, unlike American troops, the Europeans “don’t know how to do counterinsurgency operations.” First-tier allies took this personally. “Bloody outrageous,” one British lawmaker said. The Dutch summoned the U.S. ambassador to explain. “We should not be criticizing allies,” the Polish foreign minister warned. Indeed we shouldn’t. A bad idea in any war, it is astonishingly unwise when Washington is pleading for help from other countries.

Second, we must listen better. For months, first-tier allies have been lobbying Washington, with little success, to experiment with a new southern strategy that would rely less on air strikes in an effort to avoid Afghan civilian casualties. Incorporating these suggestions would do a lot to soothe intra-alliance tension.

Washington’s new motto, at Bucharest and beyond, should be “less hectoring, more harkening.” In its remaining time in office, the Bush administration should devote as much energy to keeping NATO’s workhorses happy as it has to motivating NATO’s laggards. Doing so could help ensure that Bush’s successor inherits a first tier that is growing rather than shrinking. The only thing worse than a two-tiered alliance is an alliance with one universally disillusioned tier.