Academic journal article The Polish Quarterly of International Affairs

NATO beyond Afghanistan: A U.S. View on the ISAF Mission and the Future of the Alliance

Academic journal article The Polish Quarterly of International Affairs

NATO beyond Afghanistan: A U.S. View on the ISAF Mission and the Future of the Alliance

Article excerpt


As the ISAF mission in Afghanistan draws to a close, and with the follow- on effort there still very much in the air at the time of writing, now is the time to take stock of NATO's decade long engagement in Central Asia, and what the mission says about the alliance's ability to marshal political will, develop and deploy capabilities, and the future of the transatlantic security bargain. Now is also the time re-evaluate the state of the transatlantic security relationship, and examine how Afghanistan has moulded U.S. opinions of NATO and Washington's European allies. Both aspects will be crucial as the broader transatlantic community faces a rapidly changing world in the years ahead, and beyond the mission in Afghanistan. Indeed, this has taken on greater urgency as the crisis over Ukraine unfolds.

Many in Washington have drawn the conclusion that NATO largely failed in Afghanistan, in no small part due to insufficient political will in Europe coupled with lacklustre military capabilities and forces contributed by America's NATO allies. However, on closer examination, this conclusion about America's European allies appears hasty. Indeed, European nations have exhibited a surprising level of political will, considering the circumstances, and the Afghanistan mission has generated a major, and sometimes painful, transformation of European forces towards a more expeditionary construct. This is precisely what Washington has sought from its allies in Europe since the end of the Cold War.

But, after 10 years of war in Afghanistan, the transatlantic community today faces a new geo-strategic reality and evolving security environment, and such developments could arguably call into question the ultimate utility of the Afghanistan mission. However, the lessons learned, the inter-operability achieved, the capabilities developed, and the partnerships forged because of the Afghanistan mission, may prove crucial to NATO's ability to remain both a credible collective security and defence player in the transatlantic context, and a valued vehicle for global action alongside the United States. However, building on what Afghanistan has generated may prove a tall order in an age of austerity, contested domestic politics, and transatlantic dissonance.

The ISAF in Afghanistan and Implications for NATO: A U.S. View

In many ways, the U.S. experience in the ISAF effort must be described as unique. After all, the war in Afghanistan was launched after a terrorist attack against the United States, and the George W. Bush administration initially sought only a limited role for NATO, instead preferring a coalition of the willing approach (in which many NATO members participated).1 The United States also ran a significant counter-terrorism effort in Afghanistan in parallel to the ISAF mission for a considerable period of time. Furthermore, the effort in Afghanistan increasingly became an afterthought in Washington, as the United States sought to gain international legitimacy, prepared for, and executed the operation "Iraqi Freedom." As the post-invasion insurgency in Iraq grew in scope and intensity, Afghanistan, and NATO's role there, fell further from Washington's attention. For a time, the then secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld even suggested that Afghanistan could be largely handed over to America's European allies, so that the United States could focus entirely on Iraq.2 This lack of attention to Afghanistan, and by implication to the ISAF, was not fully rectified until the Obama administration and the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Iraq. Finally, as a superpower that touches both the Atlantic and Pacific, with interests and allies and alliances around the world, the United States is less defined by NATO and the transatlantic mindset than are other NATO members. NATO is certainly important to the United States, but the security relationships with other non-European allies (such as Japan, Australia, South Korea, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and others) also take up much of Washington's time and attention. …

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