The dissolution of the Soviet Empire removed the traditional raison
d'être for what had become history's most successful military alliance
and forced the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to go "out of area or
out of business." At the dawn of the 21st century, NATO responded
accordingly by linking its future relevance to what is often referred
to as the organization's most important mission: the stabilization and
reconstruction of Afghanistan.
In order to adequately address the challenges of the 21st century, NATO expanded to its current 26 member states, while developing and strengthening cooperation with non-member countries on a bilateral basis. Determined by a process of consultation and negotiation, these so called ‘global partnerships' have made valuable contributions to NATO's mission in Afghanistan. Australian and South-Korean forces, for example, have conducted operations alongside Dutch, British and American troops in the dangerous and unstable southern and eastern provinces of Afghanistan.
Notwithstanding NATO's efforts, the situation in Afghanistan remains fragile. Continuous instability and insecurity hamper reconstruction efforts and leave the war-torn Afghan population frustrated with the foreign military presence. Nevertheless, substantial contributions to the mission in Afghanistan by formal NATO members remain largely absent.
The lack of long-term and substantial commitment is partly due to the existence of different positions among the alliance's members with regard to the objective of the mission. Although reconstruction and security are obviously interrelated - there can be no reconstruction without security and vice versa - some member states continue to perceive the mission in Afghanistan solely as a reconstruction effort. This perception has generated reluctance among several governments to dispatch troops to engage in combat operations.
Despite the importance of non-member states' contributions to NATO's all-important mission, the reliance on global partnerships may weaken the alliance in the long term. Although strengthening global partnerships may provide a valuable solution to member states' absence of long-term commitment to the stabilization and reconstruction of Afghanistan, it may produce a dangerous precedent at the same time. The reliance on global partnerships may be perceived as a substitute for member states that are unwilling to commit themselves to the alliance's new raison d'être, thereby eroding the internal cohesion of the alliance and reducing the alliance's international credibility.
If progress is to be achieved in Afghanistan, the organization's member states should translate their political statements into actual contributions. Although global partnerships are indispensable for equipping the alliance for the 21st century, their contributions should be perceived as an addition rather than a substitute for contributions of the formal member states. If long-term commitment to the all-important mission in Afghanistan remains absent, history's most successful military organization will be unable to achieve progress and will lose its relevance in the 21st century. Out of Afghanistan means out of business.
Djörn Eversteijn holds a BA in European Studies and is currently a research trainee at the University of Amsterdam.
Related materials from the Atlantic Community:
- Djörn Eversteijn: NATO and the Forgotten War
- Marek Swierczynski: NATO is Trapped in Afghanistan
- Eva Diez: Spanish Engagement in Afghanistan: An Undefined Mission