The escalating conflict between European countries and the United States over the level of commitment to Afghanistan has spurred a good deal of commentary. There are very different perspectives on who is to blame, but a consistent theme is that the conflict has deeper roots in what Europe and the US see as the future role of NATO.
In a long, complex argument - Cracks in the Foundation: NATO's New Troubles - the CATO Institute's Stanley Kober compares NATO's current troubles in Afghanistan to the long-forgotten SEATO. The South East Asian Treaty Organisation eventually dissolved in 1977 after failing to engage in Vietnam, a war the US fought on its own and eventually disengaged from. Although circumstances are different, he argues that a loss in Afghanistan might bring the alliance into an existential crisis.
America, Kober argues, should not extent security guarantees when it is not absolutely certain that it can back up these guarantees. Therefore, instead of seeking to expand NATO even further, the US should consider the real possibility that it will not last, and he concludes:
Given the difficulties the alliance is confronting, it is not too early to begin discussions with our allies about what a post-NATO world would look like. They have put their trust in us, and we have an obligation to them, and to ourselves, to face the world honestly.
In the Los Angeles Times, Boston University international relations professor Andrew Bacevich has a similarly bleak piece called NATO at Twilight. Bacevich focuses on the degraded capacities of European countries, and the lower amount of solidarity the alliance can now command. His main criticism, however, is directed at the Bush administration, which, he states "is kidding itself if it thinks Europeans will save the day in Afghanistan." According to Bacevich, the only realistic remaining purpose of NATO is securing European integration.
Foreign affairs journalist Eric Margolis goes even further in his Edmonton Sun piece, Europeans can see what America cannot:
At this week's NATO conference in Vilnius, Lithuania, an angry U.S. Secretary of Defence Robert Gates accused some Europeans of not being prepared to "fight and die" in Afghanistan in the battle against the Taliban.
The undiplomatic Gates is quite right. Most Europeans regard the Afghan conflict as a) wrong and immoral; b) America's war; c) all about oil; or d) probably lost.
Margolis himself seems to choose door 'd)', citing increasing attacks on supply lines in Pakistan, and a recent statement by ISAF commanding officer Dan Mcneill that a proper counterinsurgency campaign would require 400,000 troops. He also argues that by pushing this impopular, distant war, the United States is undermining its power in Europe, which is mostly provided through the alliance.
The role of NATO is understood on very different levels. It is alternatively seen as an institution furthering European integration; a possibly obsolete but also potentially overstretched check on Russia, and a tool for furthering American influence in Europe.
The US itself does have a clear policy spelling out what it wants from NATO: A more outward looking alliance that will support its global missions. Disagreement on whether that is something Europe wants NATO to do is perfectly valid, but European countries can only reach a compromise with the US when there is a European policy on NATO's role. Unlike the increasingly disaffected public, European government leaders still believe in the alliance. Quite what they want from it is less clear.
(hat-tip to the European Tribune for the Margolis piece and to reader Don S for the Bacevich piece)