Editor’s Note: This is an edited version of an article from the ‘Oxford Analytica Daily Brief’. Oxford Analytica is a global analysis and advisory firm that draws on a worldwide network of experts to advise its clients on their strategy and performance.
France intends to withdraw its troops from NATO-led operations in Afghanistan by 2013. This is earlier than the previously agreed deadline of 2014. This announcement, coupled with signs that other allies - including the United States - may be rushing to leave Afghanistan, threatens to humiliate the alliance, with severe consequences for trans-Atlantic security.
Every generation of Western politicians has dreaded the possibility of NATO's demise. In the 1960s, governments assumed that the anti-Americanism generated by the Vietnam War would tear the alliance apart. A decade later, there were worries that detente would produce the same result. When the Cold War ended, politicians feared that the 'glue' provided by the Soviet threat would disappear. Yet NATO defied these predictions and survived with an increased membership and enhanced reputation.
Still, pessimists claim that recent conflicts raise much more difficult questions about the future of the organisation. In Libya, for the first time, the United States pushed NATO into a military operation, but then took a back seat, leaving it to the Europeans to do most of the fighting.
In Afghanistan, the alliance waded into a conflict without a clear idea of what it wanted to accomplish, inadequate coordination between contributing nations and almost no discussion about the endgame. The result was heavy casualties and huge political tensions. There is a real danger that countries will follow the French example and 'rush for the exit' in Afghanistan; a botched NATO-led war could turn into a debacle that might seal the alliance's fate.
However, this is unlikely to be the outcome. Far from considering it a failure, the U.S. administration regards the Libya operation as precisely the kind of division of labor which the alliance will apply in future conflicts: NATO will act as a conduit for resources required by a group of countries that feel threatened enough to commit their forces.
Afghanistan is a trickier problem, but not one which should destroy NATO. Provided governments coordinate their withdrawal - still the most likely outcome, despite the French announcement - and provided the Afghan government survives for a decent interval afterwards, NATO should emerge relatively unscathed. Even the Soviet-installed puppet regime in Afghanistan survived for two years after that withdrawal, and there is no reason why a similar scenario could not happen now. Furthermore, no member-state wants to engage in recriminations, if only because none wishes to admit that its own casualties in Afghanistan were in vain.
NATO as such is unlikely to disappear - if only because, as the Libya operation showed, Europe's Common Security and Defense Policy is not and cannot be an alternative to the alliance. The Europeans will not acquire any capabilities to conduct autonomous military operations, so they will need logistical support and access to enormous U.S. military capabilities.
The United States itself is unlikely to give up on the alliance; it has no comparable multinational military structure anywhere else in the world. However, the alliance will increasingly become a looser 'talking shop' where security issues are debated but not necessarily resolved.
While NATO members disagree as to its future role, none has any interest in disintegration. Although stresses within the alliance will come up at the NATO summit in May in Chicago, the alliance will survive - at a minimum as a venue for articulating political controversies, and probably in a more organized way than before.
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