For the first time since its foundation more than half a century ago, the NATO alliance is involved in a military operation far from Europe. It has taken command of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. The operation is a major break with tradition for NATO, which was formed as a strictly defensive alliance to protect Western Europe in the days of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. So what does this deployment mean for NATO and for the world's geostrategic situation generally?
Prague, 12 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- To be or not to be, that is the question of existence pondered by Hamlet in Shakespeare's great drama. NATO, the world's most powerful military alliance, has been facing the same basic question since the end of the Cold War between the U.S.-led Western powers and the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact.
Conceived in the 1940s as a means of providing protection for the West European nations as well as forward defense for the United States, NATO has seen its role in the world fade as a result of the collapse of the Warsaw Pact.
The slogan which arose during the 1990s was that NATO must "go out of area, or go out of business." In other words, as a grouping of advanced, democratic nations it needed to find a legitimate role in the more diffuse security challenges of the new era -- or become irrelevant.
Its decision to enter the conflict between Belgrade and the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo pointed in a new direction, but a controversial one, in that such an intervention -- even if humanitarian -- ran counter to NATO's avowed stance as a defensive alliance.
At any rate, the move failed to stop NATO's decline. The alliance even began to show signs of unraveling when the United States and some of its European allies quarreled over the Iraq conflict.
Now NATO has embarked on a new task which may be the key to its future. It made history this week with its first out-of-Europe operation, namely by taking command of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the UN-sponsored force providing security for the Afghan capital Kabul.
The British officer in charge of NATO in Afghanistan, General Jack Deverell, remarked on the importance of the move. He said taking command of the ISAF "is quite clearly a milestone in NATO's development. And it represents a real break from the NATO of the past to a NATO which is more relevant and has greater utility in the uncertain security environment we find in the future."
Deverell went on to say NATO will be following the UN mandate to assist Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai and his government in establishing a safe environment in Kabul and the surrounding area.
NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson pointed out the special qualities the alliance can bring to leading the multinational force in Kabul. "There are going to be 35 countries as part of this coalition contributing, in some cases -- like Canada and Germany -- a very large number of forces. France with something like 300. Right down to countries with four soldiers, five soldiers, maybe even two soldiers. But all brought together because of NATO's unique reputation for interoperability, standardization, the habit of training and educating together -- which allows all of these diverse forces to work well and effectively on the ground in a multinational formation," he said.
For some political analysts, the Afghan operation comes just in time to boost the flagging fortunes of the alliance. James Sherr, a senior analyst at Britain's Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, told RFE/RL: "The NATO deployment in Afghanistan in my view does have the potential of leading NATO out of the crisis that was thrust upon it by the deep divisions of the Iraq war. But I don't think anyone should underestimate how deeply disoriented and unsettled NATO has become in the past year, owing first to the fact that it no longer occupies a central place in United States' strategic thinking."
Sherr said he sees no alternative to getting the alliance properly back on its feet, but he said that won't be an easy process. And he said its presence in Afghanistan proves that NATO is no longer geographically bound to Europe.
But the prospect of possible future deployment of NATO soldiers around the world raises the core issue of legitimacy. On what basis can alliance troops enter a country with which they are not formally at war? The legitimacy of the U.S.-led coalition's invasion of Iraq remains, for some, a controversial question.
In Afghanistan, the United Nations has authorized NATO's presence, removing any controversy. Sherr said: "What is vital for legitimacy is that those who favor military actions secure what is clearly in the eyes of the world a broad base of support, the support of all of NATO, and make the case firmly for intervention. Now, I think in nine times out of 10, that will lead to a UN mandate."
Sherr said, however, that action without a UN mandate cannot be excluded in a theoretical case -- where, for instance, the Security Council is being blocked by a single vote.
Another analyst, Heather Grabbe of the Center for European Reform in London, said that if the United States continues to have doubts about the central role of the UN, then it's even possible NATO could provide an "alternative" forum for discussion among the big powers. She noted that although China is not linked to NATO, Russia is, through the NATO-Russia Council. "Could NATO become the UN Security Council by proxy in the future, if the U.S. refuses to deal with the UN Security Council? That's one of the biggest questions for NATO," Grabbe said.
In the short term, however, both Grabbe and Sherr believe the next big question is whether the United States will seek to have NATO troops deployed in Iraq. As Sherr put it, this would be a key factor in the process of restoring NATO to a central role. "It is a process which will be appreciably strengthened if the NATO allies find sufficient consensus to request the United Nations to give NATO a leading role in peacekeeping in Iraq. A great deal hinges on this," he said.
At any rate, by assuming command of the ISAF, NATO has taken a first step toward a new 21st-century role.