Afghanistan as NATO-Europe Faultline

Spencer Ackerman introduces us to the new SACEUR (Supreme Allied Commander Europe, otherwise known as NATO’s military commander), Adm. James Stavridis. It’s the first time a Naval officer has held the post. Note that the alliance, along with the rest of the world, is currently engaged in anti-piracy patrols off of Somalia. That also corresponds to a shift in strategic focus among Western general staffs towards the Indian Ocean and Asia as the most likely threat horizon, with an emphasis on naval rivalries.

This is admittedly tea-leaf reading, but I wonder if this doesn’t represent Washington’s desire to reassert the importance of South Asia as a theater of operations for the alliance. I wonder, too, if that won’t exacerbate tensions within the alliance over its long-term strategic vision.

Obviously the Afghanistan War is the central faultline. Ironically, the United States is finally moving closer to the European line that has for a few years now emphasized the political character of any solution there. But progress in Afghanistan will have to come quickly, perhaps more quickly than is possible, for the political line to hold in Europe.

I’ve been meaning to link to this Nicolas Gros-Verheyde post for three weeks now. He argues (in French) that the Afghanistan War has overstretched the European military capacity, and risks to fundamentally alter the character of Europe’s strategic posture, which for better or worse is less interventionist and more multilateralist than America’s. He lists five consequences of a continued European engagement:

– Reform of European military capacity — 2 million troops, but a force projection capacity in the tens of thousand. (He lists this as a positive effect.)
– Increased European responsibility for European security (also a positive).
– Increased entanglement in America’s political and strategic agenda abroad (negative from a European point of view).
– Limiting effect on European ambitions to act independently in multilateral peacekeeping missions that are already suffering from a lack of troops (negative).
– An urgency for re-equipping forces emphasizing interoperability, thus favoring American material (negative from a European point of view).

In essence, Gros-Verheyde argues that the Afghanistan mission will have more of an impact on European ambitions to develop an independent capacity as a strategic global actor than Fance’s reintegration of NATO’s command structure. For the moment there is little appetite for that outside of Paris. But should that change, the implications for NATO’s current Afghanistan mission and future strategic focus seem to work against the idea of an enlarged theater of operations.

I have a hunch that America will finish the Afghanistan War the way we began it — without NATO, or with such a reduced NATO presence as to render it less than credible. If so, the implications for our own multilateral options for future interventions will be significant, and not necessarily easily remedied.