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Analysis: NATO's Afghan Trials

Council on Foreign Relations

Updated: December 21, 2007
Author: Greg Bruno

Patience is at a premium among NATO allies in Afghanistan. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, frustrated by an inability to secure additional helicopters and soldiers, lashed out at member nations ahead of meetings in Scotland on December 15. Britain’s top defense official, Des Browne, also has called on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) “to share the burden” (BBC) in rebuilding. Those allies on the receiving end of such messages—including Germany, which supplies the third-largest contingent of forces to the effort but refuses to conduct major combat missions—responded coolly (Spiegel Online). The criticism will be “taken seriously,” a spokesman for the German interior ministry said, “but is not entirely new.”

Bickering between capitals underscores the challenges facing the Afghanistan mission six years after U.S.-led forces invaded. Suicide attacks are on the rise (PDF), aid workers are increasingly targeted (Times of London), and the Taliban has surfaced in once-peaceful regions. U.S. and British pleas for multilateral assistance also say much about the health of NATO itself—and the price of failure for the strategic alliance forged in the early days of the Cold War. Until this year’s Taliban resurgence tied up NATO forces, particularly from Canada, Britain, and the Netherlands, the alliance had focused largely on development and reconstruction. There are 41,700 troops from thirty-nine countries in the International Security Assistance Force (PDF), including fifteen thousand Americans. But the United States also has an additional twelve thousand non-NATO soldiers who conduct counterinsurgency missions. The two forces don’t always coordinate.

Others find fault outside NATO’s structure. Barnett R. Rubin, an Afghanistan expert at New York University, says the foot dragging by member nations is linked to the Bush administration’s go-it-alone attitude early in the war.

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Copyright 2007 by the Council on Foreign Relations. This material is republished on with specific permission from the Reprint and republication queries for this article should be directed to

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