NATO risks sinking into Afghan quagmire

30 May 2006

NATO risks sinking into Afghan quagmire

Afghanistan remains priority number 1 for NATO. The alliance cannot afford to fail, and member states must therefore provide the necessary resources and allow the soldiers on the ground to engage in armed conflict with rebels and not force them to restrict themselves to “peace keeping”. This was the message which NATO Secretary General and General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and General James Jones, commander-in-chief of NATO forces in Europe, presented to the alliance's parliamentary assembly when it gathered this week in Paris.

Intense violence in Afghanistan is causing great concern amongst many political and military leaders. Hundreds of deaths, including both civilians and foreign soldiers, have occurred in recent weeks, more than at any time since the American invasion of 2001. Nevertheless, everyone in NATO appears happy to carry on talking. General Jones even suggested that the growing violence could be taken as proof of the effectiveness of the NATO mission. “Up to now these areas of the country were left to the Taliban,” he said. “Now they're coming up against us.”

Violence is not solely the work of the Taliban, however. Opium producers and warlords are equally responsible. NATO's mission is also directed against these elements and will, Jones claims, soon cover the whole country, gradually taking over the role of American troops. This summer, for example, 1400 Dutch soldiers will leave for the extremely dangerous Uruzgan province.

Tiny KoxSP Senator Tiny Kox, a member of the Netherlands' delegation to the assembly, was among those who expressed doubts about this NATO mission. During one of the debates he raised the question of whether NATO was not sinking ever deeper into a quagmire, taking Dutch soldiers down with it. “There is no properly functioning government,” Senator Kox said, “corruption is enormous, the economy depends on drug production and there is a war going on. How can there be any talk of reconstruction?” The NATO mission was far from being either effective or proportional, though clearly NATO's leadership thought otherwise.

Paris also heard discussion of NATO enlargement and the alliance's future. President Saakashvili of Georgia and President Aliyev of Azerbeidjan had come to the meeting to present their case for strengthening relations with the transatlantic alliance, while the government of Ukraine was represented by its foreign minister Borys Tarasyuk. The parliamentary assembly supported a call to invite Albania, Macedonia and Croatia to join the alliance by 2008 at the latest and to develop closer relations with Georgia. Kox argued for a more measured approach, but this found little support. The SP Senator expressed his concern over possible NATO involvement in the Caucasus, where numerous conflicts had the potential to expand into major crises.

Opinions regarding the future of NATO were many and varied, as was demonstrated by the contribution from French Defence Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie who argued that some member states were asking too much of the alliance. The French government was in favour of limitation and concentration of activities. This should not be seen as a refusal by France to fulfil its tasks within NATO, added Henri Bentegaat, chief of staff of the French armed forces. France, it was true, held a unique position in relation to NATO and did not participate in all of its activities, but was nevertheless one of the major contributors to the various NATO missions. The French Minister of Defence supported the further strengthening of the military force of the European Union, arguing that it must be “complementary” to that of NATO. This gave a foretaste of next October's NATO summit in Riga, Latvia, where, General Jones said, discussions must take place on “such fundamental questions as: what is NATO, why does NATO still exist, what does the alliance do and what does it offer to citizens?” The general expressed optimism – “the best of NATO has yet to come” – but recognised that there was a growing contradiction between what the member states said they wanted and what they were prepared to do about it. Jones noted in this context that only nine member states had achieved the agreed obligatory target of spending 2% of their GDP on defence and security. “You cannot get ever more for ever less,” the American military leader stated, a view which won support from NATO's political supremo Jaap De Hoop Scheffer. Recognising that there was little public enthusiasm for increasing spending on NATO, he said that this was “because we are obviously not communicating sufficiently well. People do not see the connection between their security and our action in Afghanistan. We must therefore explain it better.”

Ambassadors of NATO member states have announced that in 2009, NATO's sixtieth anniversary, a decision will be taken over the formal adaptation of NATO's strategy to changed conditions. Senator Kox had already called on Foreign Minister Ben Bot to open a debate on this subject amongst not only politicians and the military but also the general population, focussing on a more desirable international security structure, but Mr Bot would not make any such promise. He did, however, say that he would work to ensure that new NATO guidelines were made public before October's Riga summit. These to date unpublished guidelines must form the basis for an adjusted strategic vision for the ‘new’ NATO.

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