NATO’s Endangered Mission in Afghanistan

By Abid Mustafa – London

Lately, a number of contradictory statements between Europe and America over NATO operations in Afghanistan have raised awkward questions about the longevity of NATO’s mission in Afghanistan.

Already cracks in the alliance have started to widen over the success of NATO operations. On May 10, 2008, the Sunday Times quoted Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith as saying: “We’re not going to win this war. It’s about reducing it to a manageable level of insurgency that’s not a strategic threat and can be managed by the Afghan Army.”

Responding to Carleton-Smith’s comments, White House, spokesman Gordon Johndroe said that Smith’s comments reflected a need for the United States, NATO and the Afghan Army to work together to support Afghanistan. “It’s going to take all of us … working together on the political, economic and security fronts to win in Afghanistan. I’m sure that’s what the brigadier meant by his comment.” Carleton-Smith comments appear at odds with the October 1 briefing in which US Gen David McKiernan, the head of NATO forces in Afghanistan said, “[I’m] more convinced than ever that the Taliban will not prevail”.

But even amongst America’s military leadership there is no clear consensus on how well the war in Afghanistan is progressing. In September, US commander, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen that he was not convinced the US was winning in Afghanistan. 

At the diplomatic level, Britain’s ambassador to Kabul bluntly spelt out what he thought about the chances of NATO’s success. He was quoted as telling a French diplomat that international efforts were "doomed to fail". The remarks come after a litany of disagreements between British and American officials. America has been incensed by British efforts to cut clandestine deals with Taliban and Afghan officials, establish camps for Taliban and manipulate the UN to place officials sympathetic to Britain’s interests Afghanistan—the failed appointment of Paddy Ashdown is a high profile casualty of such an endeavour. 

America’s differences with other European countries are not so pronounced, and gravitate around bolstering NATO troops and strengthening NATO’s military assets in Afghanistan.

Again the US has failed to make any significant headway here. Ever since the commencement of NATO operation in Afghanistan under the guise of International Security Assistance Force in 2003, certain European countries have been reluctant to put their troops and assets in harms way. Belgium, Italy, France and Germany have invoked specific caveats that allow them to place their troops in quieter areas of Afghanistan. The NATO summit in Riga 2006 failed to redress this issue and subsequently, Britain, US, Canada and Netherlands ended up doing the bulk of the fighting. In other words, Europe’s reluctance to whole-heartedly embrace NATO’s mission in Afghanistan—which is to fight Islamic resurgence and defend America’s strategic energy interests in the region— has posed huge challenges for America.

This also explains why repeated warnings by the Bush administration about the consequences of NATO’s failure in Afghanistan have hitherto fallen on deaf ears.

At best some European powers like France have pledged to provide a squadron of Mirage 2000 fighter planes and a modicum of troops—none of this is going to tip the balance of the war in NATO’s favour. In real-terms the collective European response to America’s war in Afghanistan is tantamount to token transatlantic support in the anticipation that America’s bloody war in Afghanistan would result in Pax-Americana’s slow death.

Europe’s apathetic support places a tremendous strain on America’s military forces and politicians to succeed in Afghanistan. Not surprisingly then that US defense secretary Robert Gates told American law makers on September 24th that the Afghan/Pakistan border is potentially the biggest threat facing America, and that the US will be deploying an extra 20,000 troop. However, the additional troops can only be deployed sometime close to April 2009. Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee, ”Without changing lengths of tours, we do not have the forces to send three additional brigade combat teams to Afghanistan at this point…I believe we will be able to meet that requirement, but we’ll meet it in the spring and summer rather than immediately." 

The deployment of additional US troops will only result in 50,000 US troops. At present, the US forces are working alongside 80,000 Afghan troops and 120,000 Pakistani troops—all of which seem to be ineffective against the current level of Pashtun resistance.

In the meantime, America’s only hope of avoiding defeat is to lean on Pakistan to stymie the flow of Taliban fighters and to parry the existential threat to Karzai’s regime. On the other hand, if America presses Pakistan too hard, she may unleash a chain of events that could precipitate the re-establishment of the Caliphate and deliver a ‘strategic ‘defeat to America and NATO in Afghanistan.

-Abid Mustafa is a political commentator who specializes in Muslim affairs. He contributed this article to

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