The Real World: NATO and the Middle East

Date: 04-04-2008 | Category: Articles, Middle East

The Real World: NATO and the Middle East


By Ariel Cohen

The Bucharest summit tells a cautionary tale to the Middle East countries and Afghanistan. The bottom line is: while there are severe limits to American and European power, largely for internal reasons, it is imprudent to write off European countries and the U.S. as global powers.

?ne of the key squabbling points before and during Bucharest was the number of troops and equipment to be contributed to Afghanistan. Last fall, Canada warned that it will pull out of the NATO force there if the allies don’t contribute adequately and allow their troops to fight in the south of the country.

This is because several European NATO allies, especially Germany, have not allowed their troops to fight the Taliban, limiting their deployment to the relatively quiet north. Other troops were not allowed to fight at night – when the Taliban engage in the majority of their operations.

At Bucharest, France announced that it will send one battalion (700-800 soldiers) to relieve the Canadians. The United States, which has contributed the majority of the 47,000 NATO troops, scrambled to persuade the Europeans to send more troops, but finally ended up throwing in the towel.

Instead, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced that the Pentagon will send an additional 3,200-3,500 Americans, mostly Marines, to Afghanistan. There is also a shortage of helicopters capable of flying in severe mountain conditions – something that American helos do well, and even the Soviet machines used to quite adequately.

The bottom line, is some European governments and elites do not want to fight to win in Afghanistan. In informal conversations, they treat the NATO engagement there as "America’s war" and think the fighting till victory is unnecessary.

They would rather do economic development, build schools, train police, or teach opium poppy growing Afghan farmers advanced agricultural techniques. Then peace will materialize somehow.

At a conference in Tallinn, Estonia, which this author attended last week, ? senior EU security official called both Iraq and Afghanistan "wrong wars" and instead praised the EU mission in Darfur, which so far lacks troops and failed to stop what many called genocide of darker-skinned Sudanese.

The French, for example, want to shift emphasis from NATO to the European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP), and build a separate rapid reaction force. ESDP will not have Americans in the decision making process at all, while "borrowing" American air lift or satellite when needed. It will take years if not decades for ESDP to stand up, but in the meantime, bickering inside the alliance will seriously delimit its expeditionary, out-of-area capacity.

In another conference, British, French and Dutch security experts seriously discussed how post-war development trumps war-fighting. "We have achieved great successes in building bus shelters in Afghanistan, even if they don’t have buses in rural areas," one British expert said.

The Europeans are right to be wary in one sense. The Afghan theater, just as the Iraqi theater, requires more than just military operations. There is an important place for diplomacy, financial flaws interdiction, arms supply interruption, and yes, economic and institutional development. For example, if Pakistan continues to tolerate the Taliban and al-Qaida safe havens along its border with Afghanistan, then hostilities there may continue for a long time, and the Afghan, European and American troops will keep bleeding.

But to recoil from fighting altogether is an expression of the deep malaise that is affecting Europe, and the roots of this are demographic, as well as philosophical.

Since World War II, and especially with advance of birth control, Europe’s indigenous population has fallen below replenishment level. The able-bodied population is in decline, with many families having only one or two children. Even with unemployment high by U.S. standards (8-12 percent on average), many shun professional military service. ?he recent immigrants tend not to serve as well.

With the ranks of the European unemployed and aging swelling, more funds are needed for social security and retirement funds, and for socialized medicine. With almost the same GDP (around $13 trillion a year) in the EU and the U.S., military budgets in Europe are between 1 and 1.8 percent of GDP on average, while the U.S. military budget is close to 4 percent.

As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have lasted a long time and take place in severe climates, the rate of equipment attrition is high. The troops need everything, from armored personnel carriers and helicopters which can operate in desert and mountainous climates, to trucks and ammo. This equipment is expensive, and the European governments are not rushing to pay.

The second reason for the aversion to fighting is Europe’s post-World War II trauma. Some 55 million people perished in that conflict (including in Russia and Asia), and the surviving populations have moved on, many abandoning religion in the process, and transitioning to a post-modern view of the world.

Europe’s rush to give up warfare as an instrument of foreign policy, viewing war as absolutely evil, and relying on the American shield against the Soviets simply does not answer modern, 21st century threats, including from Islamist terrorism. Unfortunately for the Europeans, this is one threat that diplomacy is not going to be able to negotiate away.

As Europe increasingly becomes post-Christian, absolute values, those considered worth dying for, have largely passed from the scene. Post-modernist education made every narrative, be it Christian, Muslim, pagan, capitalist or socialist, ecological or libertarian, equally indefensible and not worth fighting for.

So the bottom line is that some NATO members may send troops to help villagers but not to fight a fanatical guerilla force, or simply argue that the social security budget deficit has caused them to cut military spending for 2008.

This recognition of NATO’s limitations may be a blessing in disguise. First, it may push India, China and even Russia to recognize that they have real interests at stake in Afghanistan, in the Middle East, and elsewhere. These interests may be real, going beyond thumbing their noses at Uncle Sam. Vital agenda items may include stability in the Middle East and crisis prevention necessary to keep the oil prices stable, if not decreasing.

Secondly, there are governments in the Middle East that think of the U.S. ?r NATO as the "security lenders" of last resort. These may be forced to realize that they should take steps to upgrade their security and military forces and realistically assess external and internal threats to their countries – including from Iran and either domestic or transnational radicals.

After Iraq and Afghanistan, the likelihood of another massive Western intervention is fading like the mist over an Afghan mountain valley on a warm spring day – for now. Yet, Europeans love their lifestyles and are committed to their values.

The UK and France still have hundreds of nuclear weapons. And with NATO enlargement to poorer countries, the alliance may come up with larger reservoirs of manpower from countries like Romania. Agreement on missile defense in Bucharest indicates that Europe will not be a sitting duck.

If attacked on their own turf, NATO may fight. And if the current elites prove too feeble to lead, they may be replaced by the voters. One cannot easily discard a 2,000-year history of constant warfare. Another generation, espousing different values, may lead Europe, with results which are hard to predict.

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