As NATO approaches the April Kehl-Strasbourg Summit and sets its priorities to conform to the transforming international security environment, the leaders in the Alliance should be focusing on achieving one goal: winning in Afghanistan. 


Since 1991, Alliance members have been working to establish NATO as a vital organization within a security environment that was “radically changing.”  In doing so, NATO members have spread their agenda broadly to achieve the ultimate goal of a Europe that is whole and free.  But while NATO seeks to expand the array of issues on its agenda, from enlargement to cybersecurity, the effort in Afghanistan suffers.  As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said regarding the war Iraq, “that is the war we are in. That is the war we must win.” 

1991 was a year of transformation.  The bipolar security environment that NATO was built upon no longer existed.  With the uncertainty surrounding NATO’s proper role in the post-Cold War environment, member-states raised a multitude of issues to help justify the alliance’s continued existence.  From there sprang the concepts of NATO enlargement, the development of NATO-Russia engagement, confronting instability in Kosovo and the Balkans, and the idea of a “broad approach to security” to achieve the goal of a secure Europe.  Most importantly, NATO members declared that out-of-area operations were essential in order to confront insecurity from outside of the Alliance’s borders.  NATO now finds itself with an increasingly ambitious agenda. 

Despite a crisis in its first Article V mission, this broad approach continues.  At the 2008 Bucharest Summit, for example,  NATO members pledged on continued enlargement, further potential discussions of Membership Action Plans with Georgia and Ukraine, maintaining engagement with Russia, a reaffirmation of fighting the war in Afghanistan, continuing a Mediterranean dialogue, building a NATO Response Force, and addressing cyber and energy security.  This agenda supported the idea that NATO continued to be a vital organization to addressing all issues that confront the future of European security, but also illustrated that NATO’s focus had become too broad, in the face of a faltering war in Afghanistan. 

This year, NATO should reform its agenda to focus on Afghanistan.  The Alliance is currently faced with Ukrainian and Georgian accession in the organization, uneasy relations with Russia, and ongoing discussions on NATO and U.S. missile defense.  To move forward in Afghanistan, some of these issues must be put aside for now.  NATO members need to very clearly signal to both Georgia and Ukraine that enlargement discussions will be put on hold until relations with Russia allow for continued engagement. 

Russia has offered to open up supply routes for NATO forces to transport materiel into Afghanistan, a critical development in support of the ongoing operations.  NATO should continue to seek support from Russia, Ukraine and Georgia in the war effort, but must leave aside issues of enlargement and missile defense until the most pressing issue is confronted.  Moreover, NATO members should begin to reach out to members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to develop a more regional approach to security in Central Asia.  An all Afghanistan agenda would call for all members and potential members of the Alliance to provide greater manpower and materiel contributions for operations.  Moreover, NATO needs to engage the greater region in Central Asia, to increase political support for the mission and to open up more supply routes.  Finally, it must illustrate that the mission does not only involve NATO, but non-members in the region as well, who have a direct interest in the future security environment in Afghanistan.  NATO can achieve greater international cooperation in the one war that it is fighting. 

This does not suggest that the future of cyber- or energy security, Georgia and Ukrainian accession processes, or more active engagement in Africa are not important future challenges for NATO; today, however, NATO members must once again focus on the Alliance’s overlooked war.  Throughout the Cold War, NATO members approached the future of European security by confronting one single actor – the Soviet Union.  It did so in a number of ways, primarily through deterrence, but every action that it took was to achieve the single goal of successfully defeating a single enemy.  Today, NATO members must realize that they once again are confronted with one primary challenge in Afghanistan.  Every issue that NATO confronts for the time being should support the ultimate goal of securing and stabilizing Afghanistan.  If NATO can successfully complete its mission in Afghanistan, it will once again show that not only is the Alliance prepared to confront a major enemy, but that it continues to be the main actor in securing the future of the international security environment.  In order to achieve this it must win the war that it is in.

David Capezza is a consultant to The Center for a New American Security in Washington, DC.