The NATO Lisbon meeting, held 20th November is only the third such strategic meeting since the end of the cold war for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. This meeting was aimed at setting the strategic direction for the NATO Alliance for the next ten years. Apparently one of the core areas of focus for the meeting was transition in Afghanistan, and managing the Alliance’s presence there in the coming years, however, deep down the partnership is struggling. This article looks at the evolution of the Alliance and its implications for the future of Middle East and South Asia.
NATO and Afghanistan
The official stance of NATO as far as its role in Afghanistan is “to assist the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) in exercising and extending its authority and influence across the country, paving the way for reconstruction and effective governance”.
This assistance has grown from a force 5,000 strong in 2003 to one over 130,000 strong, with representatives from all of NATO’s 28 members today. Throughout this year leading up to the Lisbon summit there have been a number of meetings with NATO members and Afghan officials aimed specifically at dealing with the sticky issue of ‘transition’ in Afghanistan. This essentially is a way for the NATO and other forces in Afghanistan to exit without leaving the country in chaos, or open to being overrun by Taliban or other extremist elements.
NATO has estimated that some areas of Afghanistan are ready for transition at a local or even regional level, however there are grave concerns that the country as a whole is a long way from being ready for complete transition to Afghan control for a number of reasons. Firstly, the Afghani security forces are in their fledging phase, still targeted by militants and all in all simply not ready for the task. Politically there is a lot yet to be done before the country is able to sustain a coherent polity which has the faith of the people, the support of the Afghan security forces and the ability to govern effectively. This is not to say that transition will not be pushed before these elements are in place, because they almost certainly will, given that it will likely take decades for these elements to be present in Afghanistan after such a long and complex conflict.
The summit this year went off without a technical hitch, no high-profile disagreements or protestors, and officially everything went according to plan, however there is still a huge uncertainty over the future of the Afghan conflict, even though a 2014 exit date was set for NATO forces. Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan have labeled the withdrawal date as “irrational” because there is no discernable reason for the withdrawal date being set for 2014, other than that it is hoped that the situation will be more contained by then, at which time transition will be easier. In the mean time, according to the insurgents, there will be more needless bloodshed, more civilian lives lost, more years of conflict. In a statement released by the insurgents after the Lisbon summit, they commented that “they [NATO] should not postpone withdrawal of their forces even be it for one day.”
It is commonly accepted that US and NATO forces will not exit immediately from Afghanistan, because there needs to be some form of ‘success’ narrative to sell to the public before withdrawal can be done in a way which will leave a semblance of political integrity, especially for President Obama in the US. Obama faces an increasingly disgruntled public, over many issues, including Afghanistan, and now the future of new START treaty.
The Russian reset was also high on the agenda at the Lisbon summit, and the treaty is being pushed hard through the lame duck session of Congress in the US. One of the key issues faced at Lisbon was how to allay Russian fears about new proposed NATO missile defense systems, and the START treaty is seen as an important factor in this. The Russian reset will also have implications for the efforts in Afghanistan, especially related to supply routes for NATO’s forces there. Improved US-Russian relations would lessen tensions between US and NATO forces using bases in Central Asia, such as the much-contested Manas airbase in Kyrgyzstan. Using these bases, US and NATO forces bring in most of their sensitive equipment that is too dangerous to send through the main supply routes in Pakistan.
Since the end of cold war and the demise of Soviet Union, NATO has extended its reach an influence most notably in Eastern Europe and Central Asian republics. Furthermore, since 9/11 NATO has entered in to areas previously considered being out of its traditional sphere of authority, creating tensions amongst the powerhouses of Central Europe and most directly related to the threat perceptions of these countries. In an environment of global recession, strong support for NATO is shifting to Scandinavian and former Soviet republics. An Eastern and Central Europe correspondent for The Economist described it this way in November:
“The people who work at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) and NATO HQ may not know it, but it is well past closing time in the “Last-Chance Saloon”. Their well-padded Cold War lifestyles will soon be history, withering and vanishing just as the elephantine and luxurious French, UK and US “military governments” in West Berlin did in the early 1990s. When the US needs help, it will seek it from the handful of European countries with real soldiers willing to kill and be killed in foreign wars. It does not need NATO for that.”
The NATO summit in Lisbon has really helped to solidify lessons for conflicts in the 21st century which have already been experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan. These include lessons around the fact that military means are no longer sufficient for dealing with conflicts in this century, where entrenched societal, cultural, and economic aspects of struggles play as big a role as military conflict, and need to be dealt with side by side in order to achieve a successful outcome.
NATO and the Islamic World
NATO’s relations with the Islamic world can be divided in to cold war era and the post-cold war period. During the cold war, the forces acting upon the region of Middle East, South and Central Asia were divided in to Soviet dominated Warsaw Pact, American led NATO alliance, and the Non Aligned Movement (NAM).
Protracted conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have created an alarming levels of negative perceptions for the US and NATO. As has been pointed out by PoliTact previously, the core of Muslim world appears to be on a trajectory away from NATO and US, and becoming increasingly Chinese centric. Furthermore, the recent events in the Middle East related to Flotilla incident, have decisively shifted the balance of power there from Saudi block and in favor of Turkey. These changes would have dramatic implications for the politics of the Islamic world.
As a result of these political drifts in Middle East, US has heightened its diplomacy with the Muslim countries of the Asia Pacific with growing reliance on Turkey for resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and in dealing with Iran. These changes would result in a decrease of influence for Saudi supported religious groups and create new tensions in the AfPak region. PoliTact has also noted that gradual alignment of Pakistan with Iran and Turkey has already strained its relations with Saudi Arabia.
In essence, the threat from resurgent Russia alone is not sufficient to shape the threat perception of NATO. While the danger from extremists is still real, economic realities are forcing European members to search for more than just military means to tackle the challenge. However, it is China that has the potential for becoming the real motivating force for the Alliance. The mounting prominence of India in NATO’s realignment, further justifies this estimate. The review of US Afghan strategy, to be announced this week, would be reflective of the realities outlined above.