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NATO should take lead in Afghanistan

John C. Bersia The Orlando Sentinel

As the world awaits the results of Afghanistan’s historic election, attention should focus on how the United States and its allies intend to assist that country in its continuing pursuit of democratization.

After all, the job is far from finished. Despite the U.S.-led intervention, the fall of the Taliban and the birth of a new government, Afghanistan remains in shambles.

That situation, of course, comes as no surprise. Under the best of circumstances, Afghanistan would rank among the poorest and least developed nations. After decades of conflict, ranging from occupation by the former Soviet Union to civil war, only a failed state remained.

All of that was common knowledge when the Bush administration embarked on its nation-building enterprise in Afghanistan. It should have been clear that the circumstances warranted a strong, consistent and long-term commitment by the United States and its allies. Otherwise, Afghans never would have a true chance to shape their own destinies, and the remnants of the Taliban and their brethren in terrorism circles could reassert themselves.

Indeed, a resurgent Taliban threat has materialized. Should the U.S. commitment wane and the Taliban regain power, the entire intervention will have been for naught. And the world again will face the prospect that it should endeavor to avoid: the return of a rogue state under the influence of global terrorists.

In light of those concerns, President Hamid Karzai has every reason to urge the international community not to turn its back on Afghanistan at this stage. The difficulty, though, especially for the United States, stems from two massive challenges that have distracted attention from Afghanistan: the war in Iraq and the devastation left by Hurricane Katrina (not to mention further disruption by Hurricane Rita and possibly others this season). Before Katrina, many Americans had grown skeptical of the United States’ handling of Iraq and worried about the rising casualties. After Katrina, with so many pressing needs at home, resentment toward costly foreign entanglements understandably increased.

Unfortunately, the United States cannot simply wash its hands of Afghanistan and Iraq. In both cases, Washington took the initiative to remove a disruptive, belligerent, threatening regime, with the implication that it would establish peaceful, stable successor systems. That has not yet happened.

So when Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld talks about the possibility of removing some U.S. troops from Afghanistan during the next several months, Afghan officials worry and foes of the fledgling government lick their lips.

Rumsfeld does, however, have a worthwhile idea in his desire for NATO to consider a stepped-up role in Afghanistan. Unlike the situation in Iraq, where European involvement has been limited, the Afghan setting has witnessed close U.S.-European cooperation. NATO forces are deployed in a security and peacekeeping mission, while U.S. forces have responsibility for suppressing insurgents.

Even if NATO stood fast in its reluctance to participate in anti-insurgency operations in Afghanistan, the organization should consider another Rumsfeld proposal: for it to develop counterterrorism capabilities in general. The debate over NATO’s role in Afghanistan – or in Iraq, for that matter, where it is limited to training – is really about the organization’s future role and relevance in the 21st century.

To some people, NATO should have declared its mission accomplished after the end of the Cold War. To others, NATO still had a serious and useful security function; one need only recall the eagerness of former Soviet bloc countries to join as a guarantee against potential regression in Moscow. To still others – including me – the protection of Europe extends well beyond the continent’s boundaries. Thus, it is essential for NATO to have the willingness to use force in critical areas such as the Middle East.

I have long advocated the need for an increased foreign troop presence in Iraq in the interest of stabilizing the situation faster. NATO could easily fill that role.

Similarly, in Afghanistan, NATO should take on new missions as the challenges evolve, not leave the hardest work to the United States. Half-finished jobs mean only a partially secure world, one that the United States and its allies cannot afford.

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