Although it seems as if all news of Middle East developments focus around the situation in Iraq, the Afghanistan campaign is still proving to be extremely important in the long-term goal of stabilizing the region and allowing allied forces some semblance of victory in the wake of military setbacks and local political problems. However, in what appears to be a major rift between transatlantic allies, United States Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has recently begun questioning the effectiveness of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces in the overall Afghani counter-insurgency effort.
While it is easy to assume that these comments are a direct result of a proposed change in British southern Afghanistan strategy, they actually seem to stem from a variety of U.S. regional concerns-chief among them are maintaining adequate troop levels.
Earlier this month, the Financial Times reported that Secretary Gates was reviewing plans for sending 3,000 additional U.S. marines to still-volatile southern regions of the country in order to prepare for what has been described as a possible “spring offensive” by remnants of the Taliban. On Wednesday of this week, those marines looked almost certain to be deployed in order to fulfill gaps in coverage caused by the inability of other allied countries (the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Canada) to release additional troops for action in the area. With the exception of Canada, these are crucial European allies that Gates risks pushing away in terms of transatlantic understanding and cooperation.
However, an inability to deploy troops seems to be only be a single component of this most recent divergence within the alliance-Gates’ comments this week came on the heels of UK plans to create a minor change in strategies by bolstering local counter-insurgency attempts by using what are called “arbakai.” Untrained men, these Afghani units would use drums and other loud noises in order to rally their towns against terrorist action if any should appear-the hope being that a sense of community first-response action would better support the struggling Afghani security forces. The U.S., however, believes that such a move would only allow Taliban leaders who are still in Afghanistan to co-opt these untrained local groups and undermine attempts at stability.
While Gates’ frustration is understandable in the face of looming Pakistani instability, his rhetoric on the matter will only has the possibility of doing more harm than good in the long-term situation of NATO internal relations and the viability of future missions. There can be no applying guilt to European allies on matters of security now that they are capable of running their own independent security operations through a European Union structure, and with their stake in the Pakistani situation being marginally less than American policy desires-a result of the years of our support for President Pervez Musharraf’s regime. We have lost the ability to persuade Europe and we cannot simply complain until they comply with our every wish-especially when it seems as though we are unwilling to rethink our own strategy or to cooperate on new tactics with other NATO countries outside of the notion of a troop surge.
Regardless of external pressures, the events of this past month illustrate unwillingness within the U.S. administration to trust in the abilities of their allies and try a minor change in tactics. While the British plan may take a while to implement and may lead to only marginal results, at least it is a sign of creativity in attempting to bring about local change in Afghanistan in the absence of NATO ability to put boots on the ground. Furthermore, comments from a U.S. cabinet secretary that criticize the counter-terrorism knowledge of the British-who have gone out of their way to contribute to our military efforts-are arrogant. Of all the ways to increase regional security, allowing any sort of rift between allies is not one of them. If the U.S. is serious about their movement to constantly redefine (and find relevance for) the role of NATO in a post-Soviet world, then those in Washington, DC must be serious about respecting and being rational when reconciling all regional factors. By focusing only on a potential Taliban offensive or a spillover of Pakistani violence, we blind ourselves to the socio-economic needs of the Afghanis and non-military ways to improve their lives.