Heads of state and government from the 26-member North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) are scheduled to meet in Bucharest, Romania next week. The main issue to be discussed at the summit -- the alliance's operations in Afghanistan.
NATO has been operating in Afghanistan since 2003, leading a 43,000-strong United Nations-mandated contingent known as the "International Security Assistance Force", (ISAF). It is the military alliance's first mission outside the Euro-Atlantic region.
Experts say NATO has three objectives in Afghanistan. The first is to assist the government of President Hamid Karzai in its efforts to rebuild and stabilize the country. The second is to train the Afghan army and police. And the third is to hunt down and eliminate insurgents in southern Afghanistan -- home of the Taliban, which was ousted from power by a U.S.-led coalition in 2001.
"A Delicate Balance"
Charles Kupchan from the Council on Foreign Relations here in Washington says NATO's success in Afghanistan has been mixed. "NATO has had a certain amount of success in the sense that there is a stable government in Afghanistan. It doesn't have control over the entire territory of the country, but it does have control over some of it. On the other hand, the Taliban has succeeded in regaining control over certain parts of the country, especially in the south and Helmand Province," says Kupchan. "The death toll has been increasing of late as there is more violence, more suicide bombings, more attacks on NATO troops, Afghan troops and civilians. So I think it's a picture in which there is a delicate balance and it is simply too soon to say, 'Will the NATO mission succeed or will the situation continue to be sufficiently difficult that one could even see the unraveling of the NATO coalition,' as one country after another says, 'We've had enough, we're taking out our contingent.'"
Kupchan and other experts say NATO's mission in Afghanistan will dominate the discussions during the upcoming summit.
Many analysts say a key issue will be whether more countries will agree to commit additional troops and if these forces will be sent to southern Afghanistan, scene of the fiercest fighting.
Robert Hunter was the U.S. Ambassador to NATO during the Clinton administration. "The U.S. government has to push other allies who are not doing as much as what they've agreed to do, in effect, by going there because a few countries are bearing the brunt," says Hunter. "The Canadians, for example, have taken more fatalities than in any war since Korea. The British, the Poles, the Estonians, the Dutch plus the United States -- there are very few countries that are directly involved in the south and the east of the country."
Most experts say NATO is hindered in its fight against the Taliban by so-called "caveats" -- restrictions placed by various NATO-member countries on what their forces can do and where they can be deployed in Afghanistan. U.S. officials -- including Defense Secretary Robert Gates -- have strongly criticized some alliance members, saying those restrictions have harmed NATO's mission in Afghanistan. Experts say the issue of "caveats" will certainly come up during summit deliberations.
Charles Kupchan says that since some NATO countries can essentially opt out from dangerous tasks, the military alliance is not as cohesive as it used to be. "When the Soviet army was threatening the inner-German boundary line [during the Cold War], then everybody was ready to say, 'We will be there and if there's an attack, we will fight because we understand that the integrity of Western Europe is at stake,'" says Kupchan. "Right now, if you took a poll across Western Europe and in Central Europe about how important is Afghanistan -- Is this a vital security interest; how are we doing? -- you would get a wide range of opinion. And so this sort of two-tiered alliance is simply a reflection of the reality that threat perceptions are different, they vary from country to country. And that's the way the world is now."
Kupchan and other experts, including political scientist Patrick Jackson of American University here in Washington, say NATO's reputation is on the line with its operations in Afghanistan.
"NATO's problem, or NATO's challenge ever since the end of the Cold War has been, to put it kind of bluntly, is justifying its existence. NATO during the Cold War didn't have to worry about that because it was very clear what NATO's function was, who NATO's opponents were. In the period after the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO has been trying to reinvent itself as a different kind of regional alliance, a different kind of regional association," says Jackson. "So in that way, the existence of the Afghan mission is tremendously important to the operational identity, if you will, of the alliance -- what does NATO do, to put it as bluntly as possible?"
Aslé Tojé from the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies in Oslo, says the importance of NATO's Afghan mission cannot be overstated. "If the Afghan mission fails and ends in a rout where in a series of unilateral pullouts by individual member states, leaving the United States and a few of its staunchest allies to battle alone in the south, that would potentially -- even likely -- seriously erode America's commitment to the alliance," says Tojé. "And the alliance would continue its present slide toward becoming more of a consultation club for democracies, rather than a defensive military alliance."
Many experts say the NATO Bucharest summit will indicate whether member countries are committed and willing to make the military operation in Afghanistan a success.