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NATO's Afghan Graveyard

Paris, May 22, 2007 – Afghanistan is likely to prove NATO’s graveyard. The cemetery is a crowded one. The Soviet Union was buried in Afghanistan. So was the British empire; it was defeated there. So were all of the other invaders of Afghanistan, without exception, going back to Alexander the Great, whose luck ran out in the sands of Baluchistan and Afghanistan in the third century B.C.

NATO – that is, certain of its most faithful members – has gone into Afghanistan at American urging to support reconstruction of the country under the government of President Hamid Karzai. He was elected in 2004 after heading the transitional government installed after the American defeat of the Taliban government in 2001. The Taliban are now engaged in trying to recover their country.

There is considerable disquiet among these NATO governments over the dimensions and political character of this assignment, and by the casualties being suffered not only by NATO soldiers but being inadvertently inflicted on Afghan civilians.


U.S. President George W. Bush had NATO Secretary General Jaap De Hoop Scheffer to the Crawford ranch last weekend to urge greater NATO efforts and to address controversy over the division of NATO responsibilities and the lack of progress in this mission.

The last is a very serious matter. This once again is a battle into which the United States recklessly led the way. It did so despite deep ignorance of the historical and social realities of the country it attacked, wishing to punish it for the Taliban government’s hospitality to Osama ben Ladin, and refusal to hand him over in response to an American ultimatum.

The Taliban are a radical, fundamentalist and socially reactionary religious movement that wishes to expel foreign influences from Afghan society and restore its religious purity and Islamic law. This is what it did, to general American and international indifference, between 1996, when the movement seized Kabul, and the joint attack in 2001 by U.S. B-52s and the ground forces of the Talibans’ ethnic enemies in the Northern Alliance.

The Taliban are Pathans, the majority ethnic group in Afghanistan and the frontier regions of Pakistan. Thus NATO’s feasibility problem. There are 37 thousand NATO troops now in Afghanistan, many under orders from their governments to take no part in combat missions.
Afghanistan is bigger than Iraq. NATO’s forces are attempting to defeat and expel from the country a religio-political movement with roots in a Pathan society numbering an estimated 12.5 million people in Afghanistan, 28 million in nearby Pakistan, and 40-45 million internationally. This is preposterous.

It also is useless. The fate of Afghanistan has to be, and eventually will be, decided by the Afghans, not by a NATO intervention. The NATO campaign is already failing, which is why the president and the secretary general were meeting. Afterwards the two issued faint and futile statements about how everyone in NATO should send more troops and take on new responsibilities, which few if any are going to do.

The trend is in the opposite direction, the Europeans not being disposed to reinforce failure, even if Americans are (as they have been doing for nearly four years in Iraq). Such stalwart Atlanticists as Gordon Brown in Britain and the Dutch and German governments are among those giving signs of backing away from the Afghanistan mission.

Nicholas Sarkozy, Washington’s new best friend in Europe, says he does not consider a renewed French contribution to the Afghan mission “decisive.” The American military commander of NATO says there have to be “changed tactics, techniques, and procedures” in the alliance, which at this late date is not a vote of confidence.

I said this adventure may be the beginning of the end for NATO because its European members have allowed it to become transformed from a defensive alliance of nominal equals into an auxiliary of American foreign policy, and American foreign policy since 9/11 has been disastrously misconceived, and is disintegrating in the nihilistic violence of ruined Iraq.

The best thing America’s NATO allies could do for the United States would be politely, and with reasoned explanations, end their collaboration with the military operations of the war on terror.

The United States is itself probably incapable of reversing course, even under a new president. One has only to listen to the leading presidential candidates to understand that they too are under the spell of the ideology of American global intervention to conquer Terror and Evil -- even while multiplying both. Possibly Europe could deliver the shock that could save the United States from the calamity it – and NATO -- confront.

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