"I don't care if it takes another 10 or 20 years, but we cannot allow Afghanistan to fail." So spoke Frank Carlucci, former defense secretary and national security adviser, at the Council on Foreign Relations. Failure, said Mr. Carlucci, would break the Atlantic Alliance (NATO), and turn the world stage over to the next two global heavy hitters — China and Russia.
Most of the European members of NATO, while professing solidarity with the U.S. and NATO over Afghanistan, and conceding that it's a make-or-break issue for the trans-Atlantic alliance, are not prepared to stay more than another two years, maximum three.
Supplying their, at best, weak troop commitments stationed in the quieter parts of Afghanistan (where there is little Taliban guerrilla activity) is more costly than anticipated.
Countries like Belgium, Spain and Italy have limited airlift capacity and their military transport aircraft are stretched to the breaking point. European Union countries that are also members of NATO allowed their defenses to run down since 1989 when the Berlin Wall collapsed and money saved went into the gargantuan appetites of welfare states.
Most European "statesmen/women" concede the need for becoming more engaged in Afghanistan, but the layperson questions the need to expend resources in a country that is still hovering between the 15th and 16th century. Taliban was there before we came, argue most Europeans, and will be back even before we leave. With luck, they add, what will follow our withdrawal will accept the education of girls that the Taliban had rejected and ruthlessly stamped out when it ruled the roost between 1996 and 2001.
Afghan's opium poppy crop has grown steadily larger (now 8,300 tons a year that represents two-thirds of the Afghan GDP) since the 2001 U.S. invasion that toppled Taliban's Torquemada, Mullah Mohammed Omar. The one-eyed enforcer of religious fanaticism is still burrowed in the mountain fastness of the Hindu Kush, and from time to time still manages to get pronouncements onto the world's satellite TV networks.
Speaking not for attribution about the Afghan narcotics crisis, an Afghan "strategic thinker" said recently the situation was under control and getting better from year to year. Whereupon he was interrupted by a journalist who said he had heard from the intelligence community that almost every minister in President Hamid Karzai's government was "on the take, and if not the minister, his No. 2 or 3 on the minister's behalf, and that ministers were careful to keep their U.S. visas up-to-date in case a hurried exit was suddenly required."
The nonplused Afghan smiled, then said, "I thought this was on the record." Advised that it was "off the record," he confirmed everything the journalist had just said.
The high geopolitical stakes and lack of European resolve is NATO's existential crisis. Five former top-ranking military leaders have produced a new NATO "Grand Strategy for an Uncertain World — Renewing the Trans-Atlantic Partnership," hoping this would discourage heads of government from kicking the Afghan can down the road one more time at the Bucharest summit April 2-4. NATO's former uniformed chiefs (Britain's Field Marshal Lord Peter Inge, France's Adm. Jacques Lanxade, Germany's Gen. Dr. Klaus Naumann, U.S. Gen. John Shalikashvili, and Holland's Gen. Henk van den Bremen) say experiences gained in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate that crisis management in the alliance is obsolete and needs an urgent update.
This would have to include everything from prevention to stabilization, "smart power" in the new geopolitical vernacular.
Unveiling their new strategic document at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the five military brains concluded there is no single organization capable of dealing with NATO's "out-of-theater" operations. The combined efforts of NATO, the United Nations and the European Union should be brought to bear. NATO needs EU's support for its non-military capabilities, while EU needs NATO for armed forces capable of managing a serious crisis. The U.N., for its part, lacks the kind of heft that makes national entities pay attention to international political management. So the three entities should conjugate their efforts.
But what the five strategic thinkers skirted was (1) how to motivate awareness among European public opinions of current and future challenges, and (2) how to spark political awareness of current and future challenges and political resolve to implement recommendations.
France, now half-in-half-out but more in than out, is banking on the ratification of a new European treaty that would give EU the means to see itself as a coequal player with the U.S., China and Russia. Hopefully, say Europe's strategic thinkers, this would give EU a permanent president, a common foreign minister authorized to implement a single foreign policy. Common defense would take much longer.
Small neighboring countries like Belgium and the Netherlands have separate procurement programs for their armies, navies and air forces. Until last week, Belgium was without a government for the past nine months as its two principal ethnic groups — hard-working, Dutch-speaking Flemish and welfare-dependent, not so hard-working, French-speaking Walloons — argued over frayed constitutional links. Hardly a promising harbinger for EU as a global superpower.
In any event, this could not be achieved in time to influence events in Afghanistan where the clock is running out. The Taliban cannot win militarily. Nor can NATO. But could NATO, the EU and the U.N. build a viable state with modern infrastructure? Certainly not over the next three years. Hence, Frank Carlucci's admonition to stick it out for 10 to 20 years if necessary.
Chances of this happening? Slim to none.
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