Both the wars in Afghanistan and Libya reveal serious flaws in the alliance. If they can’t be fixed, perhaps it's time for a 'back to basics' NATO and a return to coalitions of the willing.
In Afghanistan, the United States has begun withdrawing troops and allies are following suit. Over the next few years, despite best efforts to train Afghan security forces, Afghanistan's corrupt and ineffective government will likely have to accommodate radical Islamist Pashtuns (the Taliban in all but name) in the south and east, and acknowledge the old Northern Alliance's sway in the north. The west of the country will remain heavily influenced by Iran.
The best-case scenario may simply be that the central government does not collapse when international forces fall below critical mass.
It is a brutal irony: In Libya, NATO made a half-thought-through effort, with the US in the back seat, and may inadvertently succeed. In Afghanistan, with eight years of hard work, massive US leadership, and more than 150,000 troops on the ground, NATO has made little lasting impact and is beginning a retreat without a clear victory. It's a strange and troubling outcome – and a bad one for NATO – on all counts.
The lessons Americans and Europeans may take from these episodes are as different as they are telling. Americans will likely blame Europeans for never doing their share in Afghanistan. And whether Libya is a success or failure, it will prove to Americans that the US should no longer offer defense capabilities that Europe itself will not fund.
Europeans, meanwhile, may conclude it was a mistake to follow the US into Afghanistan in the first place, and that the drawn-out operation in Libya further proves that expeditionary missions are a bad idea. Europe should stay close to home and practice genuine self-defense.
The one thing both sides would agree on is that for whatever we face in the future, NATO is not up to it. But in a world in which ideological, military, economic, political, and sheer chaotic threats are growing, shouldn't Europe and North America, these twin pillars of democratic values in the world, act together more closely than ever before?
If so, what are the real conclusions allies should draw from NATO's current operations? Here are some suggestions:
First, for NATO to mean anything, both sides of the Atlantic need to take ownership of the alliance.
At the moment, for both America and Europe, "NATO" has become synonymous with "them." When an American president speaks of "handing over to NATO," he means "Europe" – as though America, long the leader of NATO, is no longer in it. At the same time, for Europe, "NATO" has been long equated with "the Americans." The alliance is hollowing out from within.
Second, as underlined by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, the demolishing of European defense budgets is hastening this effect. Europe lacks the capabilities to accomplish basic combat missions without the US. This was a problem long before the Libya operation put it in stark relief.