Despite the winter lull in Afghanistan, it is becoming increasingly evident that the US-led alliance operating there since the Taliban were overthrown in 2001 is on the brink of collapse. How did a ragtag group of ill-equipped militants manage to survive seven years of military occupation by the strongest military in modern times, backed by the strongest military alliance since the collapse of the Warsaw Pact?
From the outset, the NATO mission suffered from lack of a clear mandate. Was the long-term objective stabilization? Reconstruction? Development? Or war-making, as US forces, aided by special forces from other countries, hunted down al-Qaeda fighters and their Taliban hosts?
Midway in, contributing countries saw their mandate shift from what was ostensibly stabilization (Kabul being the only real success in that department) to counterinsurgency. All of a sudden, countries like Canada and Britain, which had deployed soldiers to support Provincial Reconstruction Teams, were venturing outside their main areas of operation and engaging in fierce battles with militants.
Though fairly successful in those encounters, coalition losses were most unwelcome back home. This was not, people argued, what those countries had sent their young men and women to do.
In the halcyon days following the collapse of the Taliban, there was hope that Afghanistan could be rehabilitated, buttressed by a strong belief that a failed state that had served as a Club Med for terrorists could be turned into a success story, the first chapter in the US' quest to pacify the world through democracy.
What the US and its allies are only now beginning to realize is that Afghanistan may not have what it takes to be rehabilitated -- at least not using the Western template. In the past seven years, billions of US dollars have been poured into the country, hundreds of alliance lives have been lost and countless more Afghans have been killed -- many neither terrorists nor militants. Poppy cultivation has continued apace and the militant losses are replenished by a seemingly bottomless pool of recruits. In short, the return on the investment has been paltry.
Without a clear strategy, well-defined benchmarks and real progress, NATO has turned to what it knows best and what it was intended for in the first place (albeit for a different time and place): waging war. But the populations back home have not supported this development, and the more kids are flown back home in body bags, the less inclined they will be to support war without end in a distant country that seems unable, or even unwilling, to fall back on its feet.
Seeing this and hearing countries such as Canada threaten to pull out if other countries do not step up to the plate, Washington now faces the real possibility that its missionary vision may fail. With Iraq still shaky and likely to require strong US investment for years to come, Washington's reputation would suffer a tremendous blow if Afghanistan slipped and once again became a failed state (some argue it already has). Doubly humiliating would be its inability to rally Western countries to its cause at a time when it can no longer afford to go it alone. Hence the "strongly worded" letter by US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates last week, asking more from NATO countries, to which some, such as Germany, took offense.