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As Afghan role dwindles, doubts grow about NATO's future

March 2, 2010
Mark Thompson
Washington struggled to persuade the European members of NATO to pull their military weight even in the years when the alliance's purpose was to protect them from a Soviet invasion. Now that NATO is fighting a real war against assorted insurgents far from home in Afghanistan, getting the Europeans to pony up resources is proving to be an even tougher sell - and threatening NATO's very survival.
Even as NATO nations have won plaudits for sending more troops to Afghanistan, cracks are beginning to show in the alliance's commitment and long-term health. "Right now, the alliance faces very serious, long-term, systemic problems," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last week. Budget shortfalls - only five of the 28 members are meeting the alliance's goal of spending 2% of their GDP on defense - are hurting the war effort. The resulting dearth of helicopters, cargo planes and spy aircraft is "directly impacting operations in Afghanistan," Gates said.
Backsliding by the Netherlands, an inability to cough up sufficient troops to train the Afghan army and European polls showing dwindling support for the war paint a bleak picture. "The demilitarization of Europe - where large swaths of the general public and political class are averse to military force and the risks that go with it - has gone from a blessing in the 20th century to an impediment to achieving real security and lasting peace in the 21st," Gates warned.
The Dutch government is expected to pull its 1,600 troops out of Afghanistan soon. And a call for 3,200 additional NATO soldiers to help train the fledgling Afghan army was answered with commitments for only half that number. "Training and advising the security forces of other nations needs to become a key alliance mission," Gates said. "In Afghanistan, the alliance has struggled to field the trainers and mentors needed for this mission." The building of indigenous military forces is key to allowing the U.S. and its NATO allies to go home, which makes the alliance's response to the call for additional trainers so frustrating to U.S. war planners.
While the U.S., Britain, Canada, Denmark, Estonia and the Netherlands have done the most fighting and dying on a per capita basis, others such as France and Germany have used caveats for what their forces can do to maximize their safety. Some troops are deployed only in the less violent areas of Afghanistan, while others are restricted to less dangerous peacekeeping or training missions.
Gates also criticized NATO for buying the wrong weapons for the wrong war - a criticism he has consistently directed at the U.S. military as well during his three-year tenure, chiding it for buying wonder weapons for hypothetical wars while soldiers fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq lack armor and spy drones. "Despite the need to spend more on vital equipment for ongoing missions, the alliance has been unwilling to fundamentally change how it sets priorities and allocates resources," Gates said. He praised Denmark for giving up its submarine fleet - who knew? - in order to double the size of its expeditionary forces.
As NATO revises its "strategic concept" - the once-a-decade effort to maintain the alliance's relevance in a post–Cold War world - there is a scent of desperation in the air. For the past 20 years, it has struggled to adapt to an expeditionary role, capable of dispatching troops thousands of miles from home, "out of area," as NATO officials put it. The reason is simple: If NATO can't do out of area, it's out of business. "NATO, I think, still deserves to continue," Alexander Vershbow, the Pentagon's top international thinker, said on Feb. 26. "If NATO ceased to exist, we'd have to reinvent it very quickly."
Despite the cutting-edge technology deployed by those members that are willing to spend, NATO is hamstrung by its decisionmaking structures, which include more than 300 committees, with 20 focused on intelligence alone. And this while many member countries aren't pulling their weight.
That's why Gates is trying hard to shake the Europeans out of a sense that a robust military capability is a relic of the 20th century. If they continue on their current path, after all, European NATO members may actually succeed in doing what Moscow never could: render the 61-year-old alliance a paper tiger.
© 2010 Time Inc.
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