Since NATO was founded, its “job description” has evolved rather dramatically. In the early days it was the job of the alliance to contain the Soviet threat in Europe, but with the end of the Cold War, NATO’s focus began to shift. In a more unpredictable world, traditional security threats have expanded to include terrorism and cybercrime, and as a consequence NATO has been forced to re-jig itself to deal with the new realities.
In Chicago, Afghanistan and the NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission was a key issue, prevailing throughout the summit with a stocktaking taking place. It was reported that the “transition” is on track, with all Afghan provinces set to begin transition by the middle of 2013. In short, this means that Afghan security forces will be heading up security, with the NATO ISAF mission beginning to shift from a combat to a supporting role, although what this will mean in practice remains to be seen. The plan is that by the end of 2014 the Afghan forces will be in total control of security, allowing the closure of the ISAF mission after 10 years.
Of course this does not mean that NATO will simply pack up and leave because NATO has committed to continuing to support the Afghan security forces. First, financially, with some $4 billion. Until now the US has carried almost all the burden (95 percent) for sustaining the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). In the future, from 2015, this burden is supposed to be shared by other partners as well as the Afghan government -- although at Chicago, European partners were hardly enthusiastic about coughing up money. The UK, for example, only offered $200 million. Second, post-2014 there will be a new type of NATO mission. It will not be a combat mission but rather one focusing on training and assisting the Afghan forces.
In a recent interview, US Ambassador Ivo Daalder painted a rather rosy picture of the situation in the country. He said that “as a result of NATO’s strategy in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s momentum has been arrested, and indeed it has been reversed with the Afghans in more control of the country today. Fifty percent of the population today in Afghanistan lives in areas in which our Afghan forces are in the lead for responsibility of the country. This will rise to 75 percent by the summer.”
While many in Afghanistan may welcome the NATO departure, at the same time, over the past 10 years, nation building has been a very shaky exercise and one only has to speak to ordinary Afghans or Afghanistan’s neighbors to understand there is a high degree of concern over what will happen next. History has shown that Afghanistan, with its clans and tribally fragmented society, is an almost impossible country to govern. Furthermore, with instability and unpredictability also coming from some neighbors -- most particularly Pakistan and Iran -- many people believe this will add to the chances of Afghanistan crumbling, with far-reaching consequences. Fear of the possible spread of radical Islam into neighbors and elsewhere as well as an increase in narcotics trafficking, and the violence that goes hand in hand with that, is also a big concern.
Apart from Afghanistan, the issue of doing “more with less” and “smart defense” was discussed. Indeed, it is something of a chicken-and-egg situation as the alliance is faced with the difficult task of maintaining capabilities -- and improving them -- while at the same time austerity measures are impacting heavily on defense spending, particularly in Europe. It is a trend that needs to be reversed because while it may currently be only affecting capabilities, which is already not good, if budgets continue to be slashed it will eventually begin to affect operations. The idea of doing more together, combining limited resources, has so far produced only limited results.
NATO membership remains attractive for many countries, a number of which see it as a first step -- a sort of warm-up -- towards membership of the EU, and the only way to guarantee their security in still turbulent neighborhoods. In recent years, many of the states of the Western Balkans have joined up, with others such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Macedonia impatient to come onboard. And of course there is still Georgia, which was promised a seat at the NATO summit in 2008, although its ambitions to receive a Membership Action Plan were torpedoed by the French and more particularly the Germans, as a consequence of Russian opposition. Whether Georgia will ever make it remains to be seen, but I guess as long as Moscow views NATO as a threat -- which it still does -- it will certainly not be tomorrow.