The NATO Divide: Why the United States and NATO Aren't on the Same Page in Afghanistan

Bogged down and overstretched in Iraq, U.S. officials recognize they can't help Afghanistan alone and are urging NATO to fill the gaps.
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by Spencer P. Boyer & Caroline P. Wadhams

Facing a barrage of bad news coming out of Afghanistan, U.S. policymakers and military leaders are finally realizing that the mission in Afghanistan is under threat and that more resources, troops, and attention are required immediately. Yet, bogged down and overstretched in Iraq, U.S. officials recognize they can't do it alone and are urging NATO to fill the gaps. They have tried browbeating, cajoling, guilt-tripping, and even cross-Atlantic road shows to convince NATO countries to step up. However, in order for America to be effective in garnering more support, it must first understand why its allies are so reluctant.

To begin with, NATO is merely a collection of countries with their own unique histories, security problems, and domestic political concerns that they bring with them to the decision-making table. NATO will do no more and no less than its member states choose to do. And these governments are driven by the wishes of their people, who are increasingly skeptical about the mission in Afghanistan and any association with the United States.

According to a recent newspaper poll in Germany, only 29 percent of Germans favor continuing the NATO deployment. An April 2007 poll in Canada found that the majority of the population supported withdrawing Canadian troops before the end of their mandate in February 2009. And despite the Dutch government's recent troop extension in Afghanistan through 2010, a poll this month indicates that only 24 percent of the Dutch agree with this decision.

The reasons for this reluctance are rooted in policy and philosophical differences, as well as political fear. First, many publics see the Afghanistan mission as a U.S. operation in general, and Bush's war in particular. With U.S. credibility and President Bush's popularity at all time lows in capitals around the world, this association undermines support for the Afghanistan mission. Furthermore, the Bush administration has been so effective in conflating Iraq and Afghanistan in the U.S. "war on terror" that those NATO publics who oppose the war in Iraq have come to view the mission in Afghanistan as guilty by association.

Second, many NATO populations see the war in Afghanistan as over-militarized -- leading to excessive civilian casualties and alienating Muslim communities in Afghanistan and elsewhere, including those in Europe. German leaders in particular believe it would be political suicide to increase their engagement in Afghanistan due to Germany's post-World War II reluctance to use military force and their concerns over the nature of the mission in Afghanistan.

Third, many Europeans and Canadians have a different philosophy on the use of force and are generally more ambivalent about engaging in military activities than Americans. As the mission in Afghanistan has evolved into a combat mission, NATO member countries have become increasingly reluctant to engage. A German Marshall Fund poll from this year found that while a majority of Europeans (64 percent) supported contributing troops to reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, only 30 percent supported committing troops for combat operations, compared to 68 percent of Americans.

Fourth, many NATO populations believe they are being asked to pick up the pieces after the United States ignored their offers of assistance and sidelined them following the September 11 attacks. The United States initially refused NATO assistance in 2001, believing an international force would complicate operations. They also ignored pleas for further help by the Afghan government and the international community for years, believing the mission was accomplished in Afghanistan.

There are no easy answers, but the United States can do more to demonstrate to the world that Afghanistan is a priority and help change public opinion in Europe. U.S. officials must move away from statements such as those of Admiral Mike Mullen in his recent Congressional testimony: "In Afghanistan, we do what we can. In Iraq, we do what we must." This only shows NATO populations in Europe and Canada that we are not serious about the mission, and makes them more dubious of the whole enterprise. America also needs to lead by example by committing more of its own resources to Afghanistan

The United States must also help European and Canadian leaders make the case to their populations that this is not America's war, but an international mission. This means ceding some U.S. control through empowering an international envoy to coordinate the efforts of the international community, placing all U.S. troops under a unified command led by NATO, and engaging in more consultation and coordination with the international community.

Finally, U.S. leaders must help their counterparts make the case to European and Canadian audiences that success in Afghanistan is imperative to their national security interests, not just America's. If Afghanistan becomes a failed state and haven for terrorists again, we could all pay the price.

Spencer P. Boyer is Director of International Law and Diplomacy at the Center for American Progress, a Washington D.C.-based think tank.

Caroline Wadhams is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress, and co-author of the report The Forgotten Front, which addresses U.S. and European policy in Afghanistan.

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