Growing Weary of Each Other

21 March 2012, 11:15

Is the war in Afghanistan lost? Have the deaths of hundreds of Nato soldiers been entirely in vain? As the alliance prepares to withdraw from Afghanistan, these questions are being asked, with ever greater bitterness and insistence, by more and more leading figures in Nato member countries. There is a growing conviction that if the Afghanistan operation ends in fiasco, the damning judgment on Nato's biggest out-of-area military operation will rapidly lead to the irrelevance and disintegration of the 63-year-old alliance.

More than ten years since US and allied troops invaded Afghanistan to drive out al-Qaeda, the situation in the country has rarely been bleaker or more hostile to Western forces. Four events in the past month have inflamed tensions. The film of American troops urinating on the dead bodies of Afghans caused widespread anger and revulsion in Afghanistan. This was swiftly followed by the American decision to burn dozens of copies of the Koran, together with the possessions of other captured detainees. This proved catastrophic. Anti-American riots across the country have claimed dozens of lives. Daily demonstrations have underlined the growing hatred for all foreign forces, and the Americans in particular. And the repeated apologies and admission of error by the Obama Administration has only emphasised the clumsiness and poor understanding of the mentality and conditions in Afghanistan by the Pentagon and those official who ought, by now, to be sensitive to local concerns.

The third blow, especially for Britain, was the killing of six British servicemen, who were blown up in a Taleban attack on their vehicle in early March – the biggest single loss of life since Britain sent in more than 9,000 troops to the country. The British Government has come under strong pressure at home to speed up its withdrawal, scheduled for 2014. And although the head of the British Army has called for continued patience and determination, the incident has fuelled the growing conviction in Britain that both the operation and the tactics in Afghanistan are fatally flawed. The murder of four French troops by a disaffected Afghan Army soldier in January had a similar effect in France, and led to the announcement that all French troops would be withdrawn before 2014.

And most recently the pre-dawn murder of 16 Afghans, including women and children, by a US soldier who opened fire on villagers in their homes has placed a huge strain on US relations with the Afghan Government. The incident, comparable to the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, underlines the human and psychological toll the war has taken on American soldiers. It also makes reconciliation with the Karzai government, widely seen in Washington as hopelessly corrupt, extremely difficult. And it sets back the chances of any talks to involve the Taleban in a future peace settlement: instead, the Taleban, using the rising tide of anti-American feeling, may simply wait until the Nato pull-out and then sweep back into power.

All this has left the Nato alliance aghast. Already, the Afghan operation has taken a heavy toll. For the past 10 years there have been arguments among Nato members over burden-sharing, with those bearing the brunt of the fighting – America, Britain and France – accusing others such as Germany and Italy of seeking soft non-combat options or, in Italy's case, bribing the Taleban not to attack. Member states are now making their own decisions on when to pull out their forces. Canada, one of the most stalwart Nato members, is angry that it was left alone on the front-line in southern Afghanistan, around Kandahar and took heavy casualties in 2006-08. It has now scaled down its operations, reducing its troops from 2,500 at their height to around 950 now. France is also leaving before the 2014 Nato deadline, and some other Nato contingents have already gone.

President Obama is hosting a Nato summit in Chicago in May, and had hoped to lay out a clear plan to his allies for the withdrawal timetable and details of political discussions to ensure a transition to Afghan control of security. Things now look in disarray, however. The Americans have lost faith in Karzai, and public opinion in the West does not think his Government is worth Nato support. The recent agreement with Karzai to ensure some US troops stay on in Afghanistan after 2014 may fall victim to Afghan anger over the US serviceman's shootings.

Ironically, the only outside backing for the Nato operation in Afghanistan is coming from Russia, which has long portrayed Nato as a continued threat to Russian security. The Russians are fearful of a power vacuum in Afghanistan and are especially concerned lest the Taleban return to power and offer more support to Islamist extremists in Chechnya and elsewhere in the North Caucasus. Russia still denounces Nato in public, but is quietly helping Nato bring vital supplies into Afghanistan from the north – essential if Pakistan maintains its stranglehold on the southern supply route.

But public opinion in the West has now turned sharply against the Nato operation. The alliance briefly won renewed trust as a military organisation in the Libyan operation, when Nato took over from Britain and France the enforcement of a no-fly zone. But America was noticeably absent from Libya, and saw this more as a European than a transatlantic operation. The failure now to agree on any Western military strategy to stop the killings in Syria underlines the conviction in many Nato countries that the alliance can no longer play a decisive role in operations beyond the borders of its own members.

For some years Washington has accused its European allies of not pulling their weight in Nato, relying on US firepower as well as US financial backing to keep the alliance effective. Those arguments have continued under the Obama Administration. The previous Bush Administration increasingly decided to bypass Nato and set up "coalitions of the willing" for any operation it wanted to undertake. And there is talk in Washington of doing the same in future. Without any Soviet threat to unify the alliance, together with the steady withdrawal of American troops from Europe, there is less and less interest in Nato in Washington. Afghanistan may just be the operation that finally ended hopes of a continued unified and effective military transatlantic force in the West. 

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