Yet ISAF's recent strategic vision statement does not address even the need for a long-term commitment unambiguously, attached as it still is to the 2010 time horizon of the Benchmarks and Timelines section of the 2006 Afghanistan Compact, which it declares the basis of a "medium-term" plan.
For the longer-term approach, missing from the document, while NATO should act consciously of geopolitical interests in its housekeeper role, it must act consciously of security interdependence and others' interests so far out of area as in Afghanistan.
Either as a potential haven of terrorists, or as a drug-producing area, or in the form of both, Afghanistan is a problem for all major powers, including even Russia, China and Iran. If NATO acts in service of the North-Atlantic community's homeland security at the distant source of the aforementioned threats, conforming to what is commonly referred to as the new security agenda, then its success will not be contrary to the interests of other major players.
Three scenarios offer stability in the long run in Afghanistan, pending a number of conditions.
One possibility is that foreign troops leave Afghanistan if the ongoing insurgencies are critically weakened and Afghan forces can contain them. It is especially valid in that case that a neutral strategic identity would suit Afghanistan. That scenario, however, would be equal to leaving the right geopolitical equilibrium up to luck.
Alternatively, Western troop presence may continue in the longer term. An informal, US-led coalition or a NATO force could stay to guarantee Afghanistan's stability, constraining external endeavours.
Should it be an informal coalition remaining behind in Afghanistan, it would, over time, further aggravate existing capability gaps within NATO. Those have a negative impact not only on the North-Atlantic alliance.
An informal coalition may also evoke geopolitical worries in others, and that can affect even NATO's room for maneuver in its own area - more than NATO itself would, since several NATO members are spectacularly reluctant to engage in geopolitics. Thus the latters’ involvement in Afghanistan presents a plausible argument against the concerns of those prospective challengers of an open-ended commitment who could otherwise substantially raise the costs of staying.
If over arguments about making NATO potent, and with geopolitical sensitivity we opt for NATO, it must be more clearly the alliance itself, and not "the US and some others" - less than what Col. Thomas Lynch refers to as a "US/NATO presence," but more clearly a NATO one.
For now southern Afghanistan is where non-US troops could make a clearer mark. There is responsibility for that in the wake of ISAF's Stage 3 expansion in 2006. In the long run, it would be more important to improve the way NATO countries apply the Provincial Reconstruction Team concept, where it is actually needed, and also to better their performance in providing training to the Afghan army and police.
That is by far not all that there is to challenges in Afghanistan. However, a guarantee for a sustainable, neutral Afghan strategic identity, from a more evenly capable NATO, is part of the solution.
Péter Marton is a scholarship fellow of the Hungarian Institute of International Affairs.
Related materials from the Atlantic Community:
- T.Noetzel & B. Schreer: Afghanistan: Chances Are High That NATO Will Fail
- Marek Swierczynski: NATO at a Crossroads
- Uta Ermler: Time to Send the German Army to South-Afghanistan