NATO's Role in Afghanistan Strains Alliance

Third of a five-part series.

A Series Overview

Seven years after U.S. troops and their Afghan allies ousted the Taliban, the Islamist militia is far from beaten. This five-part series explores the state, and future, of Afghanistan and the war against the Taliban.

NATO was set up in 1949 to, as some put it, keep the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the question became: What exactly is NATO for?

Its intervention in Kosovo marked one turning point, and the Sept. 11 attacks an even bigger one, as NATO troops were sent thousands of miles away to Afghanistan. That move has created strains within the alliance in Europe.

In a snow-covered forest in central Norway, the debate about the new role of NATO comes into sharp focus. A squad of six Norwegian soldiers in full combat fatigues comes under attack from a mock enemy. As this exercise shows, the front line of the new NATO training is not to combat Soviet forces to the east, but to fight the resurgent Taliban in the snowy mountains of Afghanistan

Lt. Lars Janson of the Norwegian Army has just returned from his third tour in Afghanistan.

"I think there [have] to be military forces in Afghanistan ... if there's going to be any hope for Afghanistan at all," he says.

Not everyone in Norway agrees with Janson. Norwegian troops are largely in the north of Afghanistan. Some do have a combat role, but many are involved only in reconstruction. Even that is controversial for some members of the Norwegian government.

'Building for More War'

"I am against NATO, I always [have] been," says Hallgeir Langeland, a member of parliament and the Socialist Left Party, which is part of Norway's ruling coalition. Langeland says the alliance has been "very much ruled by" President Bush and his interests, "and NATO is an organization who is building for more war."

It's not just in Norway that strains are emerging within the alliance. NATO now includes 26 member countries. The Dutch and the British have sent troops to the combat zones in the south of Afghanistan, with the Americans and the Canadians. Other countries, such as Germany and Norway, have sent fewer combat troops and not to the more dangerous south.

German troops are on display whenever a foreign dignitary visits Berlin, but for obvious historical reasons, the Germans do not flout their military might. When U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggested last month that NATO was in danger of evolving into a two-tier alliance, it ruffled some feathers in Berlin.

A Test for Germany's Military Role

"We are the third-largest contingent in Afghanistan, after the Americans and the British," notes Karsten Voigt, the coordinator for German-American cooperation at the German Foreign Ministry. "But if we are pressured, we get stubborn and obviously it has a very counterproductive effect."

For others, though, more NATO involvement, even as far away as Afghanistan, is a necessary part of Germany's emergence as a normal, mature European power.

"Without the alliance, we would have no German unity at all," or a unified Germany under communist rule, says Gen. Harald Kujat, the former chief of defense of the German armed forces.

"So I think now that we have benefited from this very specific situation, we should pay back and be among the exporters of security."

An Alliance of Values

That exporting of security already has been shown in how NATO has helped former Eastern European and Soviet states be integrated into a broader Europe. Countries like Poland and the Baltic States are all now members of NATO and the European Union, and the transition has been amazingly smooth.

Lithuanian Undersecretary of Defense Renatas Norkus says that NATO's soft power has become as important as its hard military power.

"It is very important for Lithuania, I believe, as for other European countries as a backbone of Western values — liberal democracy and the rule of law," Norkus says. "Why [are] Georgia and Ukraine ... so eager to get into [the] alliance one day? Because it is an alliance that cherishes the universal liberal democracy values."

The problem is that in Eastern Europe and the Baltics those benefits are visible and tangible. Those countries have been incorporated into a broader Europe without the shedding of blood.

Afghanistan is a different story. The mix of soft and hard power that NATO is trying to bring to a tribal, non-European society is proving a lot more difficult. Whether NATO can resolve its differences and succeed in Afghanistan will be a sign of whether its new mission in the world can continue beyond the borders of Europe.

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