The palace of the parliament in Bucharest, they like to say in Romania, is the second largest building in the world, trumped only by the Pentagon. It will need all its space when NATO leaders start their summit there on April 2. Heads of government of most of the 26 states that make up the world's largest military alliance will show up, as well as guests such as Australia's Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, whose nations are deploying troops alongside NATO allies in Afghanistan and other far-flung places.
The guest list did not extend, however, to Majeed Khan, a tribal leader in the rugged Uruzgan region of southern Afghanistan. That's a shame. Khan would have told his hosts some home truths. He would prefer to see more of NATO, if he could, because in recent months his region has been invaded by Taliban insurgents. "We cannot stop them from coming into our areas [because] there are no soldiers to stop them," said Khan earlier this month. "The soldiers [from NATO] come into the area, but then they leave and the Taliban come back. We don't encourage the Taliban, but nor can we stop them."
At the Bucharest summit, the long war in Afghanistan will be both the most important issue on the agenda, and, in a larger sense, a metaphor for a needed debate about NATO's purpose a debate about what it is supposed to do, and what each of its members is expected to contribute to its mission. Nearly two decades after the end of the cold war which NATO decisively won without firing a shot in anger the business of refocusing the alliance remains a work in progress. NATO forces are involved in peacekeeping in the Balkans, and its political leaders are concerned with extending its membership (in the teeth of Russian opposition) to post-Soviet states such as Georgia and Ukraine. But at a time of increasing Taliban activity in southern Afghan provinces such as Uruzgan, and a growing fatigue on the part of those nations that have troops in the area (and which are suffering a higher proportion of casualties as a result), it is the war in Afghanistan that puts NATO's challenges most sharply into perspective.
In the run-up to Bucharest, the U.S., Canada and others have called on a handful of European countries to increase their troop and equipment contributions to the Afghan war. Speaking to European leaders in Germany last month, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned that NATO "must not cannot become a two-tiered alliance of those who are willing to fight and those who are not." But according to commanders on the ground in Afghanistan, that two-tiered alliance is already here. While French President Nicolas Sarkozy is widely expected to announce at the summit that he is sending another 1,000 French troops to Afghanistan, the bulk of NATO's needs are expected to go unmet.
Already, the calls for new troops have opened up rifts between member states over the conduct of operations in Afghanistan and the proper role of force in the U.S.-led "war on terrorism." And hidden in those rifts are yet other questions: about the capability of some of Europe's armed forces, and even the future of the alliance itself. Australia's Defense Minister Joel Fitzgibbon complained in February of a complete "lack of common objectives" among the NATO allies. "Someone needs to read the riot act to NATO," fumes retired U.S. General Anthony Zinni, the former U.S. central command chief. "They've got to live up to their alliance responsibilities." (Of the 43,250 troops currently in Afghanistan under NATO command, the U.S. has contributed some 15,000, and has another 16,000 in the country under separate command to root out al-Qaeda.) Joe Biden, Democratic chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has put the point starkly. "This was not a war of choice," he said this month, drawing an implied distinction between Afghanistan and Iraq. "It was a war of necessity. Our allies have as much at stake as we do ... You're either in the fight or you are not. It is time for NATO to be fully in the fight."
The Shadow of the Past
It is not as if European nations have no troops in Afghanistan. The U.K. has 7,800 there, Germany will soon have 3,500. All of the remaining alliance members have dispatched at least some troops or resources to aid in the effort. But under a system of national exceptions known as caveats, most have also stipulated that their troops not be sent to difficult areas, including the south. Within NATO, only the U.S., U.K., Canada, the Netherlands and Denmark now have significant numbers of troops in the region. Because of caveats, Germans are not allowed to fight at night and Turks can't fire except in self-defense. In the view of U.S. and NATO officials, such restrictions are badly handicapping the entire alliance. Testifying before Congress this month, one top U.S. general said caveats "increase the risk for every soldier, sailor, airman and Marine the alliance deploys."
Certainly, those nations who have sent their forces into harm's way have suffered the greatest loss. Canada has seen 81 fatalities in Afghanistan, almost all of them in the past two years. Based on the size of Canada's contingent, that is a higher rate than the U.S. has sustained in Iraq. U.S. casualties in Afghanistan have risen, too. From 2002 to 2004, the Taliban killed one U.S. soldier a week; last year the rate was twice that.
The reluctance to send troops into dangerous situations reflects a deep ambivalence in Europe about the use of force. Since Europe's long civil war between 1914 and 1945, the Continent's leaders and more importantly, its voters have taken as an article of faith the idea that conflicts are best settled by dialogue and diplomacy, with war reserved as a last resort. In Europe, the past is always present. Retired British General Sir Mike Jackson, the former British army chief who commanded NATO forces in Kosovo and U.N. peacekeepers in Bosnia, notes that "it is easy to be disparaging about Germany's contribution, but one shouldn't underestimate ... the sight of German soldiers in far-flung corners evoking unpleasant memories."