In an interviewed aired on last night’s installment of CBS’ “60 Minutes,” President Obama continued to define victory down in Afghanistan, stating that, “Making sure Al-Qaeda cannot attack the US homeland and US interests and our allies. That’s the number one priority.”

He continued by noting that “And in service of that priority there may be a whole host of things that we need to do. We may need to build up economic capacity in Afghanistan. We may need to improve our diplomatic efforts in Pakistan.” But, he emphasized, “we can’t lose sight of what our central mission is.”  The bottom line, the president noted, is that “there’s got to be an exit strategy.”

This narrowing of the mission in such a way as to make it objectively achievable and prevent mission creep from turning it into an inextractable quagmire is, in my view, the right one.  But it’s a definitely a narrower vision than embarked upon by his predecessor.

Regardless, it has become crystal clear that even the much smaller vision will not elicit additional contributions non-U.S. members of NATO.  A news item in today’s Washington Times by Anne-Laure Buffard, “NATO Gains Commitment, but Not for Afghanistan,” details the incredible political fight French president Nicolas Sarkozy has had to undertake simply to reintegrate his country into the Alliance military structure even while making it crystal clear that he has no intention of doing more in Afghanistan.

Indeed, George Washington professor and CFR senior fellow James Goldgeier proclaims, “as an alliance, NATO has already failed in Afghanistan.”

There is plenty of blame to go around for the situation NATO finds itself in as it confronts a dangerous insurgency in Afghanistan. The allies invoked Article V, the collective defense pledge that lies at NATO’s core, in solidarity with the United States after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Rather than run the initial Afghanistan operation through NATO, however, as the United States had done in 1999 in Kosovo, the Bush administration chose to put together a coalition of the willing.

Only in 2003, as the administration became mired in the postwar reconstruction in Iraq, did the United States ask NATO to play a substantial role, taking over the International Security Assistance Force that then provided for peacekeeping in the Afghan capital, Kabul. By then, Europe had grown resentful of American policies, undermining alliance solidarity.

Over time, the need for the alliance to do more increased dramatically, as the Taliban regained its strength throughout significant parts of the country. But NATO has been unable as a group to respond militarily. Only a handful of countries other than the United States, namely the United Kingdom, Canada, the Netherlands, Denmark, and non-NATO member Australia, are able to send troops into the dangerous areas of the south and east.

He outlines the various arguments as to why this may be the case, all of which will be familiar to New Atlanticist readers. He concludes with a stark choice:

Are counterinsurgency operations far from NATO territory where its future lies? If so, NATO members must be willing to commit themselves both to the idea of fighting in these conflicts and developing the means to do so. If not, and NATO merely reaffirms its role in providing security within Europe, the United States will grow less interested in investing in the alliance and will simply try to put together ad hoc coalitions to deal with the crises that will inevitably arise in other parts of the globe threatening our common security.

I continue to believe that there’s a third way: NATO becomes the vehicle for said ad hoc coalitions. It’s inconceivable that European governments will commit the resources and manpower necessary to sustain out-of-area operations. The best we can hope for, then, is for NATO to continue to provide a forum for cooperation of like-minded allies who will continue to function as a whole to provide strategic deterrence while gaining the flexibility, through changed rules, to work together in subgroups as interests dictate.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.

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