Afghanistan has eroded support for NATO in Washington. An alliance that has long enjoyed strong bipartisan support is now facing bipartisan skepticism.

A Senate hearing this fall made clear that many on Capitol Hill are asking what the value of the alliance is in the future if it cannot succeed in Afghanistan today.

The reality is that our allies and partners are playing a major role — providing a third of the forces and taking 40 percent of the fatalities. They stepped up to the plate following President Barack Obama’s decision to deploy an extra 30,000 troops and a surge in civilians. Exceeding expectations, our partners in NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) committed 7,000 new troops and substantial financial assistance. While the U.S.’s contribution still dwarfs others’, that’s how it should be; we are the strongest member of the alliance.

The Obama administration earned this success in part learning from the clumsy rollout of missile defense plans in September. The White House delayed the Afghan announcement in order to brief allies on where U.S. policy was headed, to seek contributions, and to time the announcement just prior to a meeting of NATO foreign ministers. Washington enlisted Secretary

General Anders Fogh Rasmussen as the public face cajoling allies to increase their contributions.

This approach allowed administration officials to ask allies to agree to requests from Gen. Stanley McChrystal and NATO itself rather than Washington.

Quiet, personal and coordinated diplomacy at the highest levels ensured an international echo of Obama’s decision, backed up with troops — exactly what the White House needed to push back on the “Obama’s War” headlines.

Some Europeans felt jammed, arguing that only after the United States took three months to decide its course, Washington gave Europe fewer than 10 days to come to the same conclusion. Administration officials argue that allies had three months to consider what they would do to support McChrystal’s report as well, and that Washington did not want to tell allies what to do. The reality is that on any major decision in NATO, our allies want to have a sense of where Washington is headed to avoid heading off in a different direction. Time was short for our partners.

Some allies sat on the sidelines. The new forces do not include increases from ISAF’s No. 3 and No. 4 contributors, Germany and France. Ambivalence in Berlin and Paris will leave a major gap in the U.S. strategy and reinforce the sense that Europe does not share our urgency.

But Paris is making positive noises. After Obama’s call to Nicolas Sarkozy, the Elysée began softening Sarkozy’s “not-one-more-troop” pledge, laying the groundwork for a French surge following the international conference on Afghanistan in January. Obama’s efforts have renewed debate within Chancellor Angela Merkel’s national security team on whether to ask the Bundestag for more troops and more flexibility in 2010.

There’s no doubt our partners bring less political will and military capability to the fight. But NATO’s critics need to recall that the alliance’s footprint in Afghanistan is a byproduct of U.S. policy. Washington did not set up NATO for success in Afghanistan. We resisted NATO involvement after 9/11. In fact, ISAF began as an operation limited to Kabul and led by individual nations rotating every six months.

Not until 2003 did we begin to rectify this incoherent, disruptive military structure and support NATO taking over ISAF. We spent the next three years gradually expanding ISAF throughout Afghanistan, but without U.S. forces. For the most part, the United States remained outside of the NATO operation, marshalling its efforts in the separate Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). The alliance’s largest member was absent from NATO’s most difficult mission ever.

We supported separate missions as we did not want European sensitivities to limit what U.S. forces could do. But by dividing responsibilities between ISAF (stabilization and reconstruction) and OEF (war-fighting), we solidified the European perception that their forces were in Afghanistan to build schools rather than fight al Qaeda and the Taliban. We are still unwinding the legacy of this perception.

Toward the end of the Bush administration, the United States began to fix the structural mess, pushing for unity of effort and then unity of command, naming a U.S. commander of ISAF and moving U.S. forces into the NATO mission. This year we created a new three-star headquarters to support the operation and NATO assumed responsibility for a training mission. Just this month, the United States shifted the bulk of the remainder of U.S. forces in
OEF into ISAF — an unequivocal endorsement of the NATO mission as the leading effort in Afghanistan. We are finally setting up NATO to succeed.

It’s easy to knock our allies. They have earned criticism. But let’s not blame NATO for Afghanistan. We were part of the problem. Now let’s welcome NATO as part of the answer.

Damon Wilson is vice president and director of the International Security Program at the Atlantic Council.  He can be reached by email at This essay was previously published in The Hill.  

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