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Exposing NATO's Weaknesses in Afghanistan

By Robert Knauer

Allied efforts in Afghanistan are in danger of failing. Attacks against coalition forces are increasing; the economy remains largely undeveloped, with the dubious exception of poppy production; indigenous Afghan police and military forces still require the strong support of allied forces; and government corruption is rampant. Afghanistan is by nature a difficult country to stabilize, but the reality is that the coalition waging the war is in a fractured state.

The effectiveness of coalition troops in Afghanistan, already hindered by a lack of resources, has been undermined by political meddling. For this reason, many coalition partners are punching well below their weight. The meaningful warfighting effort in Afghanistan is being borne by the U.S., along with a small core group of states supplying employable forces - Australia, the UK, Canada, Poland, and the Netherlands - as well as the nascent Afghan security forces. The remaining coalition forces are largely unemployed or unemployable, due to a combination of national caveats (including geographical limitations on where troops can operate), micromanagement by national politicians, and a lack of training and equipment.

A highly capable German special operations unit was in Afghanistan for three years and did not complete a single mission; political restrictions prevented its movement into 'hot' areas, rendering it useless. The cohesion of operational forces is further hurt by fundamental strategic differences and an onerous command structure. In other words, the war is exposing NATO (which supplies a large majority of the forces) to be the "two-tiered" organization Defense Secretary Gates had warned about, divided between "some allies willing to fight and die to protect people's security, and others who are not."

The U.S., as the de facto coalition manager, has the unenviable task of maximizing the contribution of its allies without alienating them.

Now that this war is back on the front-burner, President Obama has tried and failed to convince his European allies to make a more meaningful commitment to the fight during his visit for NATO's 60th Anniversary. In fact, several key allies have recently begun planning or contemplating withdrawal. With the U.S. already stretching the capacity of its armed forces and the President having depleted the much of his soft power arsenal, it is clear that an improved strategy of coalition management is required.

In order to encourage deeper engagement by countries where the war in Afghanistan does not resonate to the extent it does in America, it is vital to attain agreement on the desired end state that the war is meant to achieve. Countries that support the war's end, but are hesitant to engage in warfighting, should be persuaded to reconsider.

Failing that, those countries under-committing militarily should aid in other ways, such as through monetary, developmental, and diplomatic contributions. But regardless of how countries contribute, allied efforts must be coordinated and applied toward the pursuit of a common strategy, not appealing to the domestic concerns of over 40 nations.

The U.S. is limited in its ability to dictate the terms of participation of its allies, but it must be more effective in bringing to light a common strategy and thereby make the best out of an imperfect coalition.

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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Johns Hopkins University.

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