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Afghanistan: Analysts Ponder Possible NATO Role

NATO is considering taking a role in Afghanistan, a country outside the alliance's traditional sphere of responsibility. Some analysts say the idea is worthy of debate and may even revitalize NATO. But as RFE/RL reports, there is some concern whether the mission is consistent with the alliance's purpose.

Washington, 24 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Observers say it is appropriate for NATO to consider taking a greater role in Afghanistan, but there is some concern the task may merely be a way of extending the alliance's relevance artificially.

NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson, in Washington last week, told U.S. President George W. Bush such a role would expand the mission as well as the geographical reach of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Bush's administration is reported to support the idea of considering a NATO mission in Afghanistan, though neither the president nor any of his top aides has said so publicly.

Speaking in Washington on 20 February, Robertson said the alliance is even considering taking over peacekeeping duties in Afghanistan altogether.

NATO was created in the early years of the Cold War to protect its members from the threat of the Soviet Union. Since that empire broke up, the alliance has been searching for an appropriate role.

In 1999, NATO forces conducted an air campaign against the forces of Serbia and have since taken up a peacekeeping role in Kosovo. That campaign brought it "out of area," to use the terminology of the alliance, because it was not directly defending one of its member states. But the alliance's action in Kosovo was seen as appropriate because it was protecting the rest of Europe from Balkan instability.

Afghanistan, too, is out of area for NATO, but analysts interviewed by RFE/RL say a good argument could be made for a mission of the alliance there, and not just because of the Kosovo precedent. They argue that military and political instability in Afghanistan could have a negative effect on Europe.

With the exception of Kabul, the capital, and allied military bases, much of Afghanistan is ruled by independent regional commanders. For that reason alone, it is not inappropriate to think of the trans-Atlantic military alliance to keep the peace there, according to John Wolfstahl, the deputy director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a private policy-research center in Washington.

Furthermore, Wolfstahl said, there is the matter of the terrorist attacks in the United States on 11 September 2001. He said that NATO members believe the attacks were aimed not solely at the United States but at all the West. As a result, he said, European NATO members can appropriately keep the peace in a country that once harbored Al-Qaeda, the terrorist network responsible for those attacks. "I think there is an understanding that Europe can be involved, and I think also because of the global war on terrorism, which is clearly involving Europe, I think there is an understanding and support for some European mission in Afghanistan. The real question is whether NATO, as a military alliance, is the appropriate structure to handle that, and I think that's part of what needs to be debated," Wolfstahl said.

Wolfstahl said, however, that how NATO approaches Afghanistan will depend on what it decides to do about Iraq. Certainly, he said, at least some member states would be involved in any war against Iraq, and this would put at least some strain on the alliance's resources as it looks ahead to possibly maintaining a presence in Afghanistan. "I think it's within the capability of NATO to handle both contingencies, but I think at its root, a major component is going to be, militarily speaking, what sort of capabilities does NATO have and how are they going to be allocated between various theaters [of operation]," Wolfstahl said.

Arthur Helton agrees it is natural for NATO to consider a role in Afghanistan but only to provide an excuse for its continued existence now that the West faces no further Soviet threat. Helton is the director of peace and conflict studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, another private policy center based in New York.

Helton spoke of Afghanistan and NATO as if they were a homely couple brought together because no one else will have them. "I think you should see this as a marriage between Afghanistan, which is in desperate need of security, and NATO, which is in the sort of customary post-Cold War quest for relevance. And both of those imperatives make this [NATO peacekeeping in Afghanistan] very understandable and would be transforming for NATO," Helton said.

NATO's charter limits the alliance to a military defense of its members from an outside threat. Helton said he is prepared to acknowledge that the charter may be interpreted to include the peacekeeping mission in the Balkans but that the link to Afghanistan may be hard to justify. One possible role for NATO in Afghanistan would be to fight the drug trade that originates there and has so profound an effect on Europe and the United States. Helton said that fighting a drug war would mean becoming deeply involved in law enforcement, which he said probably would require rewriting the NATO charter. "What you're seeing here is NATO's mandate being teased out [subtly expanded], and its capacity will have to follow. If [NATO] is going to assume greater responsibilities for security issues in Afghanistan, it's going to have to invent more than a military capacity. It will have to deal with basic law-and-order issues and other matters. These questions inevitably bleed into things like prisons, police, courts, legal systems, and the like. NATO has no capacity on those questions," Helton said.

With a rewritten charter, however, Helton said that NATO could conceivably expand its expertise beyond fighting wars to peacekeeping and nation building, which would be consistent with the roles being taken up by modern Western armies. But he said that to do so would simply be to confirm what many people around the world already suspect: that the alliance is becoming irrelevant. "It's pretty close [to irrelevance]. Unless NATO is radically reconceived to operate out of area in such missions, then it's hard to understand what is its value added [contribution to alliance members] in terms of the new security agenda and U.S.-European relations," Helton said.

Helton said that taking on new missions and completing them successfully would give new life to NATO. But he said it probably would be better for Western countries to create new organizations to take up these functions rather than to reinvent an existing alliance.