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Early U.S. Success in Iraq Removed NATO Objections to Afghanistan Mission

Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2010

In his assessment on how things could have been different in Afghanistan, David Sanger in Sunday's New York Times repeats one of the fixed assumptions about America's longest war to date: we wouldn't be in the current mess in Afghanistan "if only [the Bush administration] had not been distracted by Iraq, or averted [its] eyes from the Taliban's resurgence."

That's almost certainly the case. But it turns out that without the Iraq war, the U.S. could well have found itself fighting in Afghanistan without NATO.

It was the rapid U.S. advance across Iraq, particularly the fall of Baghdad, that turned opposition against entering the Afghan conflict into consensus within NATO, writes Alessandro Minuto-Rizzo, who was the alliance's deputy secretary-general at the time, in his new book "The Road to Kabul: The International Committee and the Crisis in Central Asia." (You can read a review of the Italian diplomat's fascinating memoir, which is now available in an English version by Duke University Press, here.)

Several NATO members had been opposed to supporting the U.S. in Afghanistan, notably the French and the Dutch. But after the swift U.S. defeat of Saddam Hussein, "everyone thought that Pax Americana would prevail without question in Afghanistan," as seemed to be the case in Iraq, and that the Afghan action would be short and successful, writes the former No. 2 civilian in Brussels. Anticipating a quick operation, Paris set aside its objections, if not its own rules of engagement, and the other dissenters followed suit.

After NATO deployed in Afghanistan, it was Minuto-Rizzo's task to figure out what the alliance was supposed to be doing there. But a year later, "the Atlantic Alliance still did not know what strategy to follow in Afghanistan. . . . It was even difficult to recall for what strange reason it had been considered necessary to go to Kabul."

Traveling around Central Asia, the author also realizes "the political weight that Turkey enjoys, not only for historical reasons but also by virtue of the continued priority it gives to this part of Asia." In Islamabad, the Turkish ambassador boasts to him of his high-level contacts. Yet there are no Turkish troops serving in Afghanistan, to avoid possible clashes with fellow Muslims.

One wonders why Ankara's good offices have not been given more prominence in efforts to resolve differences between Afghanistan and Pakistan. But if nothing else, Turkey's standing in the region helps explain its willingness to become involved in the joint initiative with Brazil to finalize the Iranian fuel swap deal -- an action promptly squashed by the Obama administration.

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