As NATO meets this week-end in Lisbon, three crucial issues will be on the table.
The first is Afghanistan. The timetable for withdrawal of NATO forces will focus on pace, not if. The rising crescendo of certain politicos in the US that there should be no withdrawal apparently forget that this is a NATO mission, not a US mission regardless of the fact that the majority of troops are American. Decisions in NATO are taken by unanimous consent. A decision not to withdraw is not an option. However, that does not mean that the mission – a decade old, by the way – should not be molded to fit the reality on the ground.
First, as often pointed out by me and others, Afghanistan has not been and will not be a country. It is a largely feudal system of differing tribes, some of whom have more power than others. The mission of NATO and the US in particular, was established as a response to the 9/11 terror attack by Al Qaeda which launched its training and planning from Afghanistan and who were guests of the Taliban. I’m sure there are elements of the Taliban today who wish they had not indulged their cultural traditions quite as much and thrown Al Qaeda out. Nevertheless, NATO has achieved its goal of destroying Al Qaeda Central and the mission needs to consider how to assure that Afghanistan does not become a base for international terrorism again. To do this, it will need to involve Pakistan, Russia, India and (yes) Iran.
NATO, and the US, did not plunge into the Afghan civil war raging at the time in the north between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban for the purpose of nation building. Good governance and civil society building were not part of the writ then and are a long vanished opportunity now. It was a wasted opportunity and short-sighted policy, but the reality is that the Taliban are deeply embedded in society, NATO is going away, and other tribes, particularly in the north, will not be inclined to cooperate with the Taliban alliance. These are the ingredients to a return to an Afghanistan with which all the local participants are very familiar. After NATO vanishes, expect a return to localized tribal war.
That is why NATO needs to discuss the structure of future involvement in Afghanistan, not only among its member states, but also with the surrounding players. It will need to formulate a strategy to deal with potential threats. The Taliban pose zero threat to NATO or any member country. They posed no threat in 2001 and less now. We may decry the return to what most in the West consider barbaric practices; but, aside from complaints, no one in the West was in favor of a massive use of force against the Taliban for their cultural proclivities and abuse of women. Otherwise, NATO might as well invade Saudi Arabia – an unlikely proposition.
NATO, as a body, appears particularly useless at this point in time and its principal mission, defending Europe from the Soviet Union, is not relevant. It must redefine its role and Afghanistan is a good place to start.
The second issue on the table is its relationship with a resurgent Russia. This is complicated by factors that Russia considers important to its foreign policy and its relationship with Europe – such as missile shield deployment and securing its field of influence. NATO has frequently stated that Russia is a partner, not an opponent. Many in the US do not see it that way and may well sink the START Treaty which is supported by the US military and important (thinking) Republicans. If START goes down and they are not included in the decision to deploy a missile shield, expect trouble.
For a start, Moscow may stop cooperating with the United States on Iran and, bearing in mind that Afghanistan will not be over for at least another few years, it may not be so generous with the transit of non –lethal material over its territory to supply NATO troops. It may renew pressure on its “near abroad” through energy supplies and less than subtle political pressure to make sure that NATO – and particularly the US – do not renew the Bush era political invasion of their turf. Finally, if START is not ratified and the Republican leadership succeeds in bringing a return to the confrontational policies of the previous administration with Russia, then Moscow hawks may win the day. So much for the reset button.
Third, and connected to the above is this issue of the missile shield. NATO, through the US, changed its focus from an overtly challenging system aimed at Russia that Bush and his neo-con allies sought to install, to one which is aimed at defending Europe and others from Iranian missiles. NATO will try and force the issue with Turkey for example. It has already asked that Turkey allow anti-missile shields to be placed on its territory. If Turkey says ‘no’, that will lose the second most powerful military to NATO, not to mention an important Muslim ally. If NATO pushes and Turkey says ‘yes’, then its standing in the Middle East will plummet- leaving Iran as the great protector. Ultimately, it is hoped that no specific countries are cited, giving Turkey the cover to place the shield on its soil. Of course, this is not to say that Turkey is not making some serious blunders along the way. The recent demand by Turkey that it be given operational control of the system based on its territory is absurd – but indicates the levels to which Turkey will go to gain respect and leverage in its back-yard. Time for NATO to be clever and devise a satisfactory solution because it would be sad to begin the ritual “who lost Turkey” refrain. Turkey needs to climb down from some of its positions as well.
By the end of the week-end, NATO will need to formulate an approach to the entire Middle East. It should have the wit to see how key Turkey is to the alliance and the West and not permit Israel to dictate policy. Fortunately, there is only one member of the alliance that allows its foreign policy to be directed by Israel. The others are not so inclined.
Finally, aside from specific areas of concern that must be addressed, NATO must redefine itself. It is already largely irrelevant but is unable to dissolve itself. None of its members, even France and Germany and certainly not Poland and the Baltics, want that to happen. Sweden and Finland will likely increase their participation in NATO short of becoming members. So, what is NATO to become? Because, the Cold War is over and political relationships are getting back to normal.