Wednesday, June 30, 2004

The Alliance

Reader DM notes Jacques Chirac's objections to using the NATO Response Force (NRF) in Afghanistan. The NRF is a quick response unit consisting of rotating contributions from different national elements designed to provide a force projection capability for NATO, which it currently lacks.

The French president also resisted US pressure to deploy Nato units to boost security in Afghanistan. Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, warned that opposition to deploying the NATO response force (NRF) could be circumvented by taking a decision in a forum which excludes France. But Mr Chirac, unhappy about deploying the alliance outside its cold war era European area of operations, made clear he thought the force should not be used to help secure the Afghan elections in September.

One of the reasons that the NRF was created was to provide "global reach" to enable the alliance to operate out of the traditional European area. Although its mission is "yet to be determined" officially, Chirac has determined it for himself, at least in the negative when he said, "The NRF is not designed for this. It shouldn't be used just for any old matter." The Afghan elections are arguably the most important milestone since the campaign to topple the Taliban, in which NATO was also absent. What then would constitute sufficient matter to engage Chirac? Patrick Belton of Oxblog argues that if NATO's role in Afghanistan got any lighter, it would evaporate.

'ISAF (the International Security Assistance Force) however, was never resourced to move outside of Kabul in a more than symbolic way, and when it finally did, has focused more on its own security than that of Afghans. Despite Afghanistan being widely proclaimed as Nato's highest priority, the unwillingness of Nato member states to adequately resource ISAF with troops and equipment has seriously undermined the ability of ISAF commanders to do their job effectively.'

'Prime Minister Tony Blair's 2003 declaration that the international community 'will not walk away from' Afghanistan missed the real question: When will the international community really walk into Afghanistan, and make the necessary commitments and investments that will give the Afghan people a reasonable chance at building a peaceful and stable country?'

This goes to the real heart of the alliance problem in War on Terror. France and its allies must convert every campaign against terrorists into a diplomatic demarche because such solutions are the only ones available to them, absent a credible military capability. If American power consists of "hard" and "soft" components, France's claim to great nation status relies almost entirely on its membership in "soft" institutions of diplomacy which compels it to torture problems into these venues even when confronted by situations like providing security in the lofty Central Asian mountains. Yet far from welcoming an effort to provide Europe with a nascent expeditionary capability, Chirac may misgive it. For if once the NRF, with an eventual projected size at divisional strength exists, it may be used by a  America to suck Europe into overseas commitments. After all, the only sure way to avoid drawing a sword is to cast it away.

Yet Afghanistan, is if anything, the best indicator of what those who feel so deeply about Iraq may think two years hence: a place that has outworn its anti-American propaganda value and returned to its seat in the forgotten places of the world. For now there is enough of an American presence there to prevent the Taliban from returning but not enough to allow Washington to shape events decisively. Critics of the war who say Washington hasn't put enough "boots on the ground" are strangely silent about where such boots are to come from. Certainly Michael Moore's Farenheit 9/11 isn't designed to boost enlistment nor will the Europeans -- if Chirac has his way -- be forthcoming. The Pentagon has tried to generate forces by reorganizing existing divisions into smaller brigades, a process explained in this TRADOC article, spreading out American blood a little thinner, for which they will get no thanks.

Nor is the problem confined to land. The Economist talks about the challenges of combating seaborne terrorism which is threatening something more immediately valuable than Afghanistan: world trade.

A quarter of the world’s entire maritime trade, including about half of all seaborne oil shipments, passes through the Malacca strait in South-East Asia, which at one point narrows to as little as one-and-a-half nautical miles. The strait and the seas around it are infested with well-organised, armed and ruthless pirates (see map) who hijack ships and kill or maroon their crews before repainting the vessels at sea and sailing into port under a new, “phantom” identity. If pirates can do this so easily, why not terrorists? Imagine the devastation to world trade if one or more giant tankers were captured and used to block the straits. Or the possible casualties if a hijacked phantom ship were used to carry a nuclear “dirty bomb” into one of the world’s main ports or to launch missiles at a coastal city? These are nightmare scenarios worthy of a Hollywood disaster movie. But they are also the sort of threats that are being taken seriously by the world’s governments. On Monday June 28th, leaders of the NATO military alliance, meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, agreed a package of anti-terrorism measures including new defences against attacks on ports and shipping.

The United States Coast Guard says it intends to board every ship that does not comply with the rules on its first entry to an American port from July 1st. This will be quite some task, given that there are 60,000 calls at American ports each year by ocean-going ships. Nevertheless, the American authorities are confident that this will not cause serious hold-ups to trade.

Well and good, but here again the question of bearing the cost enters the picture.

However, those elsewhere are not so confident. Christoph Brockmann, an official of Germany’s main maritime agency, told Reuters news agency last week that, if European Union countries insisted on strict compliance, there would be disruption to trade. Mr Brockmann said only 60% of the roughly 200 ships that call at German ports each day have the International Ship Security Certificate that will be compulsory from July 1st.

The Americans too may experience a disruption to trade but are committed to enduring it. The question will be whether Europe is prepared to accept the cost and inconvenience as part of the price of meeting the terrorist threat. The debate over the War on Terror has been grotesquely distorted to focus on Iraq; on Abu Ghraib; on President Bush's underwear, creating a mutant public policy map drawn according to some lunatic projection. The real major fronts on the War on Terror are generational problems: nuclear containment, homeland security, dealing with failed states, combating terrorist organizations and their state sponsors and providing maritime security. In Afghanistan, France has basically told America to go it alone. As Chirac said, "We are friends and allies but we are not servants." Perhaps France will help in the Straits of Malacca.