After seven years of urging coalition countries to beef up troop commitments in Afghanistan, Washington appears to have concluded the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) cannot be relied upon to provide the "hard power" needed to counter Taliban gains. As a result, the United States is going soft. Last month, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told lawmakers he wanted coalition partners to focus on "civilian support" (McClatchy). Other Obama administration officials have signaled the United States intends to leave development policy "increasingly to European allies" (NYT). President Obama plans to send an additional 17,000 soldiers to the fight.
But if the approach was meant as a way to allow America's wary European allies to take part without committing troops to combat, some inside NATO, including the alliance's secretary general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, worry that European influence on geopolitical questions will be diminished as a result. "When the United States asks for a serious partner, it doesn't just want advice, it wants, and deserves, someone to share the heavy lifting," Scheffer told the annual NATO international security conference in Munich.
Ever since the toppling of the Taliban in 2001, the Afghan fight has been seen as a test case for the sixty-year-old NATO alliance. Few would argue NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan has passed the test. American troops joke that ISAF stands for "I Saw Americans Fight" (USNews). While such barracks humor exaggerates the problem, a February 2009 assessment of the alliance's future (PDF) led by Daniel Hamilton of Johns Hopkins University concludes that NATO may fracture irrevocably "if Europe and North America are unable to quell the threat emanating from the Afghan-Pakistani borderlands."
How or even whether NATO...