Afghanistan: the crucial question for NATO

Without any doubt, geo-strategical and economic interests played and play an important role in the military intervention of NATO in Afghanistan. But there is much more at play in the Hindu Kush. From the point of view of the West, nothing less than the future of NATO will be decided there.

In the 1990s, NATO was transformed from a – at least on paper – defence alliance to a global inter­ven­tion alliance. This pro­cess was mostly completed with the war against Yugo­slavia and the decision on a new Strategic Concept in early 1999, which almost coincided. From then on NATO had to prove that it is not only wil­ling, but also capable, of enforcing its mem­bers interests with violence far away from its original alliance territory – and not just at the periphery, such as on the Balkans.

For this, Afghanistan became – deli­berately or not – the central theatre. Be­cause such “stabilisation missions” will be the norm in the future, as the document “NATO 2020: Assured Security; Dynamic Engagement”, published in May 2010, points out. The proposal for an actualisa­tion of NATO's Strategic Concept, produ­ced on behalf of NATO General Secretary Anders Fogh Rasmussen, explains: “In light of the complex and unpredictable security climate likely to prevail through the coming decade, it is not possible to rule out NATO's future participation in similar (although hopefully less extended) stabilisation missions.

But if NATO fails in Afghanistan, then NATO won't be able for a long time to go on similar adventures, as German chan­cellor Angela Merkel stresses: “I think I am able to say […] that the stabilisation of Afghanistan is presently one of the major challenges of NATO and its member sta­tes. It is something like a litmus test for successful crisis management and for a NATO able to act.” Robert Naumann, until 2007 US ambassador in Afghanistan, was even more open: “NATO took on the funda­mental commitment to win in Afghanistan. And either it will win, or it will fail as an organisation.

The war in Afghanistan takes place against the background of increasing con­flicts with new emerging rivals (China, and to a lesser extent Russia), in which many see the outlines of a New Cold War. A defeat of NATO in Afghanistan would signify a weakening of NATO, which one cannot afford in view of these new rivalries, argues for example Kersten Kahl, president of the Federal Academy for Security Policy (Bundesakademie für Sicher­heitspolitik), the training centre for the leadership of the Ger­man army: “Whether we like it or not: linked to success or failure in the Hindu Kush are strong signals, which reach far beyond Afghanistan. […] But there is more at stake. The Afghanistan mission [...] has turned into a serious test of the inner cohesion and with this also of the power of the North Atlantic Alliance. […] Concretely, this means: if President Obama wants to bring the NATO mission in Afghanistan to a successful end by putting a lot of effort by the USA behind it, then it is only sen­sible to support him with an appropriate contribution. If this did not happen, then we would not only endanger the new US foreign policy, which we want so much, but we would also erode the relevance of the alliance. This we cannot afford when he view the changes in the global order of power, and future risks.

Also, the US Secret Services in their sensational report "Global Trends 2025" from November 2008, predict – for the first time – not only a significant loss of power for the USA (and Europe), but also fierce conflicts with China and Russia. In this report there is a very illuminating senten­ce, which displays the great significance of the war in Afghanistan. The Secret Service report includes a fictitious letter to the NATO General Secretary by the Head of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which is partly seen as an anti-NATO military alliance of Russia, China, and some central Asian states, dated forward to the year 2015, which reads: “Fifteen to 20 years ago, I would never have imagined the SCO to be NATO’s equal—if not […] an even somewhat more important international organization. I think it is fair to say it began when you pulled out of Afghanistan without accomplishing your mission of pacifying the Taliban.

The Afghanistan mission is therefore not a “deplorable exception”, it is an ex­pression and litmus test of the ambition of the powers of the West to enforce their dominance, if necessary by force – and for this NATO is their instrument of choice. Not least for this reason the war has to be “won” – it's make or break – and it is of no significance what this means for the people of Afghanistan.

Tobias Pflüger