NATO members will gather May 20 in Chicago under the shadow of fiscal austerity and pressure to pull out of Afghanistan. Washington wants as many NATO troops as possible to stay in Afghanistan, not just through 2014, when major combat elements are to be removed, but for years beyond to play essential training and advisory roles.
Complicating the picture is France’s new president, François Hollande, who campaigned on a pledge to withdraw French troops from Afghanistan by year’s end. Equally worrisome is Hollande’s view that France failed to win sufficient advantage in rejoining NATO’s command structure, sparking concern that Paris may return to a confrontational approach to the alliance, potentially risking the hard-won stature and authority it gained after returning to NATO in 2009.
Having borne a heavy toll over a decade of fighting in Afghanistan, NATO can’t wash its hands of the region but must ensure an orderly exit and remain committed to providing military and financial aid until Afghanistan can stand on its own, a long-term proposition.
President Obama rightly committed America to supporting Afghanistan for a decade after combat operations end in 2014, without which the country would again descend into chaos, rendering a decade of U.S. and NATO sacrifice a waste. NATO is about sharing security burdens and responsibilities: America can lead, but shouldn’t bear that burden alone.
Beyond Afghanistan, NATO must concretely implement Smart Defense initiatives to pool and share capabilities to economically meet collective needs. France and America also have obligations. Hollande, who will either break his Afghanistan pledge to those who voted for him or let down his alliance partners, must clarify France’s commitment to NATO. Obama, meanwhile, must make clear to his European allies that they remain at the core of America’s security interests — even as Washington renews its focus on Asia.