September 14, 2006
By Alan W. Dowd

Five years after it spawned 9/11, Afghanistan is no longer under the control of the medieval Taliban and its al Qaeda partners. That’s the good news. The bad news is that five years after 9/11, it doesn’t appear that Afghanistan is under anyone’s control. A US-led NATO force is trying to change that, but its work is far from over. Indeed, to paraphrase Churchill, NATO’s Afghanistan mission is closer to the end of the beginning than the beginning of the end. 

It has been a bloody September for NATO and its sometimes-squeamish membership. At least 14 British troops died when their plane went down on September 2, and five Canadians were killed last week—a week punctuated by a massive bombing in the heart of Kabul that killed two American troops and more than a dozen Afghanis. As The Washington Post reported, the attacks have “brought what was an almost exclusively rural insurgency to the Afghan capital.” A British general told the Post that his troops are coming under a dozen attacks per day.

In short, NATO is learning that Afghanistan is not a peacekeeping mission in Europe. This is a counterinsurgency war in one of the most remote and hostile places on earth. By my count, the toll of Afghanistan’s Bloody September already exceeds NATO’s combat losses in the Balkans.

With NATO trying to assert itself beyond Kabul, the Taliban regrouping, and Pakistan taking an unacceptable and underserved break from the war, fresh bloodshed was inevitable in what might be called the forgotten front of the war on terror.

Given the risks, perhaps it should come as no surprise that NATO’s commitment to, and durability in, Afghanistan remain to be seen. Last week, for instance, NATO commander Gen. James Jones said alliance members have only contributed 85 percent of the forces they pledged to stabilize Afghanistan’s broken and battered landscape. He then conceded that NATO’s Afghanistan force needs as many as 2,500 more soldiers, an additional squadron of attack helicopters and more heavy transport planes.

Hopefully, NATO members will rise to the challenge when their military chiefs meet this weekend in Warsaw. But we shouldn’t hold our breath. The Germans, for instance, have sent signals that they are less than eager to wade into Afghanistan’s hotspots.

The Canadians, who, to their credit, have been leading operations in Afghanistan’s throbbing south, may have reached the end of their capabilities: Prior to Stephen Harper’s election, Canada’s defense budget was a paltry 1.1 percent of gross domestic product. As a consequence, the Canadian military is in a rebuilding mode. In fact, most of Canada’s deployed troops have to be delivered by the US military. Worse, Canada has even had to turn to Russia and the United States for airlift assistance in responding to problems inside the country, such as flooding and ice storms.

The UK is doing its share in Afghanistan and Iraq.

As for NATO’s other European members, Gen. Jones has every right to expect more. As Lt. Col. Stephen Coonen detailed in a recent essay in Parameters, NATO’s European contingent fields some 2.3 million active-duty troops and another 3.04 million reserves. The US, by comparison, has 1.5 million troops on active duty—and active is the operative word for the American military these days—and less than a million reserves.

Of course, after years of miniscule investments in defense, NATO’s continental contingent may not have much more than troops to offer. For the rest of what a 21st-century military alliance needs to dominate the battle space—weaponry, heavy-lift capabilities, logistics, and command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR)—the United States is in a class by itself. As Lt. Gen. Michael Short bluntly concluded after the air war above Kosovo, “We’ve got an A Team and a B Team now.” Consider, as evidence, a study by The Economist, which revealed that only 10 percent of NATO’s European combat aircraft were capable of precision bombing during the Kosovo War.

This didn’t just happen by accident or by fate. The United States invests in defense and security. Europe, by and large, does not. The US spends about 4 percent of its GDP on the common defense, Europe less than 2 percent. Individual numbers are just as disappointing: France invests just 2.6 percent of GDP, Italy 1.8 percent, Germany 1.5 percent. Washington’s 2003 increase in military spending, by way of example, was actually more than the total defense outlays of any European government.

During the Balkan wars that scarred Europe in the 1990s, it seemed that Europe’s spirit was willing but the body was weak. Today, it’s not even clear if the spirit is willing. Afghanistan will provide the answer.

If, as NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has said, the alliance is committed to “creating a secure, stable and prosperous Afghanistan,” then it’s time for NATO’s European members to step up and prove it.