General David Petraeus, in his acceptance speech for the Atlantic Council’s 2009 Distinguished Military Leader Award, proclaimed that he is “a huge believer in the importance of the Alliance” but warned that NATO “now faces a very urgent moment.”
He observed that, “In signing on to support operations in Afghanistan, NATO nations signaled their recognition that transnational extremism poses a threat to all of us.” Yet, “despite the Alliance’s best efforts, the situation has been deteriorating in some parts of the country.”
Petraeus believes that recent moves, including the Obama administration’s new Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy and agreements reached at the NATO Summit earlier this month, “new resources have been added and new resolve has been demonstrated. Additionally, the dual-hatting of General David McKiernan as commander of both ISAF and U.S. forces in Afghanistan will help achieve “unity of effort that is so vital in multilateral operations.” These moves, he contends, mean that rather than being Americanized, Afghanistan will continue to be an Alliance and Coalition effort.”
The general argued that continued progress will require that this remains the case. He proclaimed that “Working together is vitally necessary, as all in this room appreciate.” While acknowledging the difficulties of working through political and cultural differences, Petraeus cited Winston Churchill’s dictum that “the only thing worse than having allies is not having them.” Afghanistan presents challenges “too big and too complex for any one country to handle on its own.”
Petraeus is of course right that other NATO countries are contributing to the mission in Afghanistan and paying the price for it in both blood and treasure. But the fact remains that, with the surge in United States forces now underway, the operation is becoming undeniably Americanized in terms of troopers on the ground.
The Obama administration is making the best they can of a bad situation, asking the Allies to contribute what they can, sending more money or increasing their commitment to training Afghan security forces if they can not send more combat troops. Any help in those areas is, of course, appreciated and helpful. But a division of labor in which one country does most of the fighting while others contribute mostly on the margins is not one likely to lead to the long term survival of the Alliance.
To be sure, there are NATO missions underway in Europe with little or no American presence. But Afghanistan is the hot spot and the first real test of the Alliance’s resolve. Unlike some, I don’t believe failure in Afghanistan would kill NATO. It would, however, be a grave wound. And, to the extent that it represents a permanent state of affairs, with Western Europe unwilling to bolster their commitment to building and sustaining modern military capabilities — along with a willingness to deploy them once deemed necessary — healing will be next to impossible.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.