NATO in the Post-Afghanistan Era

I’m not the only one who sees a short expiration date on our NATO allies’ commitment to Afghanistan now that the war has been “Americanized.” Here’s Jari Lindholm:

I’m no apologist for ISAF ineptitude, but let’s be honest: for eightyears, Europeans have been covering America’s ass in the north. Whathappens when they pull out is anybody’s guess. Make no mistake, though:now that they’ve been handed an excuse on a silver platter, they will leave.

Lindholm leaves some room open for the French to stay, and I’d go as far as to say it’s unlikely they’ll leave. There hasn’t really been any political cost of the French deployment, despite it being hugely unpopular. And it aligns very closely with some of French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s strategic objectives, as discussed in this New Atlanticist piece (via the Progressive Realist).

What’s more, if the French pulled out, what’s left behind bears a striking resemblance to what the British Empire might have looked like with the U.S. president sitting on the throne. And the last thing the French want to see is the possibility of an Anglo-Saxon axis as a mid-term outcome of the Afghanistan War.

As for the impact on NATO, Afghanistan was supposed to be the model for the alliance’s post-Cold War, out-of-area mission. Failure there, this argument went, would mean an existential threat to the alliance. More recently, there’s been talk of bringing NATO “back home” to Europe, with the question being whether the alliance could survive as what amounts to a dormant military instrument serving to facilitate U.S.-EU collaboration.

My hunch is that for reasons of institutional inertia, the NATO Afghanistan mission will end with a whimper, not a bang. For the foreseeable future, by which I mean 5-10 years out, NATO will function as a facilitator of ad hoc coalitions to respond to small-scale operations, such as the naval antipiracy mission off of Somalia. It’s no coincidence that the incoming NATO supreme commander is a U.S. admiral.

The two drivers of the alliance’s long-term mission will be not only European defense capacity, but also the U.S. cost-to-benefit analysis of committing much-needed military capacity to essentially guarantee the stability of Eastern Europe. The problem being that no matter how independent the EU becomes in terms of deploying forces out-of-area, a stable European security architecture still requires a united U.S.-European alliance. The EU alone is not enough to deter Russian assertiveness, and the U.S. alone would only serve to provoke it.

For now, there are severe limits to the potential for EU defense. But that’s not to say that it can’t keep progressing incrementally, as it’s done to date. The upcoming Swedish EU presidency has made it a central focus of its agenda, with particular attention given to actually using the EU battlegroups, instead of leaving them on the shelf.

But in all likelihood, the U.S. and Europe — NATO and the EU — will plod on, irrevocably marked but roughly unchanged, until some major crisis either forces them to re-embrace each other or else definitively part company.

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