NATO’s Defining Moment

The NATO has a new Secretary-General. Anders Fogh Rasmussen is a former Danish prime minister who built a reputation as a competent administrator for nine years before it was tarnished by the infamous Danish cartoons episode where his stance of freedom of expression over outright condemnation won him few plaudits.

By M N Hebbar

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram

Published: Mon 10 Aug 2009, 9:16 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 12:46 AM

Like his predecessors, Rasmussen has inherited a NATO organisation that boasts more of inherent weaknesses, internal bickering over policies and an incoherent image than for its tenacity of purpose, clarity of goals or self-assuredness of its identity. The internal pulls and pressures of NATO’s 28 member states have only contributed to political confusion.

Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, an emasculated NATO has been groping for a role that is no more concerned with defending Western Europe from a Soviet military threat. The absence of an alternative ‘enemy’ and clear focus has seen it struggling to find a raison d’etre for its existence.

As Rasmussen gets down to business – he only took office last week – he will find Afghanistan topping the list of priorities for the alliance. Another would be the need to repair the fractured relationship with Russia and develop a “true strategic partnership”. And convincing the Muslim world of his secular credentials might be quite appropriate.

The sixty years since NATO was founded have underlined its role as a regional security alliance charged with common defence policies and strategy, delicately balancing them with the national interests of its members. Much to Washington’s annoyance, the Europeans have failed to come up to its expectations whether it concerned agreement on NATO’s eastward expansion in Europe or on matters relating to sharing the financial burden of its operations.

The Europeans have been perceived as ‘fair weather friends’ who keep dragging their feet when it came to matters of burden sharing, both in terms of troops and finances. In fact, they have been seen as preferring to bypass NATO and carry out military operations with their own ‘coalition of the willing’, so to speak, thereby including only those nations committed to the serious deployment of force and able to react swiftly.

That brings us to Afghanistan where NATO is struggling to retain the initiative and has been calling for more troops to fight the Taleban in order to stop the country becoming “a Grand Central Station of international terrorism”. Rasmussen, who has already made a trip to Afghanistan a few days ago, is aware that NATO will have to demonstrate that it has the unity and commitment to stabilise one of the world’s toughest security challenges. The ghost of Russia’s fiasco here still haunts the alliance.

Afghanistan has assumed a crucial focus now that NATO’s top commander in Afghanistan has demanded thousands more American troops, thereby setting him on a collision course with the Obama administration. And thereby hangs a tale.

General Stanley McChrystal was appointed NATO commander in Afghanistan, following the unprecedented dismissal of his predecessor General David Mckierman, who irked Washington by his urge for more troops. So when Gen. McChrystal sang the same tune – thousands more American troops needed to save the mission - even more vigorously, the administration was non-plussed enough to depute Jim Jones, National Security Adviser, to Afghanistan last month on a fact-finding mission.

Is the war winnable? The remonstrance of Jim Jones with the American commanders to fight the war by focusing on economic development instead of constantly harping on the need for more troops has not helped matters, as unconventional thinking has been difficult to instill, given the terrain and the nature of insurgency operations.

This vexing scenario on the Afghan front has prodded Mr. Rasmussen to sharply weigh in the inputs of the Europeans to the Afghanistan operations, only to find them woefully inadequate, despite Germany recently raising its profile with additional soldiers and enlarged spheres of operation.

He has deemed it essential to have a proper balance between NATO forces from North America and those from Europe to dispel the view that the mission in Afghanistan was predominantly an American operation.

The US administration has called for action by the Europeans. President Obama, has already sent 21,000 Americans to Afghanistan as requested by General McKierman prior to his dismissal.

The increasing pressure to meet demands for more troops will fall on the reluctant Europeans. Experts have opined that NATO’s current 64,000 soldiers deployed in Afghanistan are “dangerously under-resourced”.

As the White House mulls over how to reconcile political opposition, including from President Obama’s own party, and military need in determining how many troops would touch the magic number, the political risks are becoming worrisome.

Europe’s indifference may well be the main threat to the NATO alliance as its very survival could depend on Europe matching the American commitment in Afghanistan.

With no clear exit strategy in sight, there is an eerie feeling of the operations recalling the Vietnam experience. But NATO expecting the Afghan security forces to take control in the near future would still be in the realm of wishful thinking.

M.N Hebbar is a veteran journalist and commentator on European affairs

More news from