Advertisement

Walker's World: NATO's two faces

By MARTIN WALKER, UPI Editor Emeritus

NEW DELHI, March 5 (UPI) -- The NATO alliance now has two faces. The European face was on display in Wiesbaden, Germany, over the weekend when German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung suggested that the new American missile defense system that is planned for deployment in Poland and the Czech Republic should be incorporated into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as a whole.

This is the anti-missile system that has Russian President Vladimir Putin alarmed that the Bush administration is seeking to emasculate Russia's nuclear threat, its last claim to the status of military superpower.

Advertisement

"I think it would be smart to integrate this whole system into NATO," Jung said during a meeting on EC defense ministers. This made the point that when it comes to protecting Europe against missile threats from rogue states, the Europeans are still relieved to have the shelter of the American umbrella.

Advertisement

But the second face of the alliance is rather more grimly on display in Afghanistan, where the German government seems unable to get political support for the deployment of more German forces, or for their deployment into Taliban-contested areas where they might get hurt, or even for their air force to offer much more than aerial reconnaissance.

In this, the Germans are not alone. Almost all the fighting in Afghanistan is being done by the Anglo-Saxons, the British, Canadians, Australians and Americans, with some modest help from the Dutch, Danes and Poles. The rest of NATO is barely even bothering to show up, and after the government of Italy's Romano Prodi briefly fell as the Senate refused to back Prodi's effort to keep Italy at least nominally in the NATO fight, other European politicians have learned to fear the pacifist and anti-American leanings of their own electorates.

The French are now withdrawing their own highly-regarded special forces unit, and the Germans, Italians and other less enthusiastic NATO allies have put strict conditions on the use of their forces. They cannot be deployed at night, nor into zones where they might be engaged in counter-insurgency battles rather than in civilian reconstruction projects, and they have even declined to send badly-needed helicopters to support those NATO units that are prepared to fight.

Advertisement

This is not simply a matter of political cowardice. Professor Paul Rogers of England's Bradford University suggests that "the caution revolves around a suspicion that the U.S. is drawing NATO into a long-term geopolitical competition with Russia and China over influence in Central Asia."

There are other factors. Some of the NATO allies suggest that the counter-insurgency war against the Taliban is probably unwinnable, at least so long as the NATO campaign is also hostage to the U.S. insistence that the war on terrorism is also a war on drugs, and that NATO troops must also try to curtail the booming Afghan opium crop. Tony Blair would not altogether disagree. Three years ago, he tried and failed to persuade President George Bush that NATO should simply buy up the opium crop and either turn it into pharmaceutical products or burn it. This would mean first that NATO was not seen as the enemy by the large number of Afghan farmers who depend on opium, and second that this would undercut the power of the regional warlords who depend on the money that comes from the drug trade.

Last week, the U.S. State Department published its 2006 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, which said that Pakistan is the main transit route for the Afghan opium to the world markets, and that the production and trafficking of opium and its derivatives "continue to be a major challenge to Afghanistan's political and economic development and threatens regional stability."

Advertisement

"To a very significant extent, when it comes to opiates, Pakistan is part of the massive Afghan opium production/refining system," the report added, bringing in the other complication that worries the Europeans, that NATO's Afghan campaign is locking the alliance into a complex regional mess that includes Pakistan.

The arrest in the Pakistani city of Quetta last week of the former Taliban Defense Minister Mullah Obaidullah Akhund, supposedly one of only two people with regular access to the former Taliban chief Mullah Omar, was on the face of it good news for NATO, suggesting that the Taliban leadership had been thrown into disarray just as it is preparing for its spring offensive. But the arrest, conveniently timed to coincide with Vice-president Dick Cheney's visit and to meet his complaints that Pakistan was not doing enough to fight the Taliban, also pointed to the intimate linkage between the Afghan campaign and the politics of Pakistan.

Almost unnoticed in the U.S. media, Cheney's Afghan trip, which became very high-profile after the suicide bomber attack on the Bagram air base that he was visiting, was matched by another NATO visitor, British Foreign secretary Margaret Beckett. She has also made another call, on Ali Jan Muhammad Orakzai, Governor of Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province, and the man who has been negotiating with Pakistan's 'moderate' Taliban in an effort to find a political solution. Last month, Orakzai told reporters the Taliban were "developing into some sort of a nationalist movement, a resistance movement, a sort of liberation war against coalition forces." Ten days ago, another leading Pakistani official, Baluchistan Governor Owais Ahmed Ghani, called on the Afghan government and NATO forces to work for a cease-fire with the Taliban forces.

Advertisement

The British seem interested in such a political solution, largely because they fear the Afghan war is destroying NATO's own cohesion, and a political deal would be better than a military defeat. It is becoming clear that the future of NATO as a serious military alliance hinges on the fate of its campaign in Afghanistan, NATO's first-ever deployment outside the European theater and its first real shooting war. There are now close to 50,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan, half of them Americans, and with the British providing the second-largest contingent after Prime Minister Tony Blair's announcement that another 1400 troops were being dispatched (a transfer made easier by the parallel decision to cut back on the British forces in Iraq).

And so this second, Afghan face of NATO, where the Germans and other Europeans are more than reluctant to play a full military role as allies, stands in striking contrast to the readiness of the Germans and others to show a rather different face in Europe, where U.S. anti-missile protection is now deemed to be desirable. The Bush administration must deal with both of these contrasting faces of NATO, even while it wonders just what support it gets in return from these European allies it has protected for so long.

Advertisement

Latest Headlines

Advertisement
Advertisement

Follow Us

Advertisement