The people of Strasbourg have voted in their apartment balconies for the French-German co-production of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s 60th birthday this Saturday. Thousands of “No to NATO” banners, alongside “Peace” banners, sprung up all around town until forcibly removed by French police.
Prime “liberal democracy” repression tactics were inevitably on show – just as in the much-hyped “we had 275 minutes to save the world and all we could come up with was half-a-trillion dollars for the International Monetary Fund” Group of 20 summit in London. Protesters were tear-gassed as terrorists. Downtown was cordoned off. Residents were forced to wear badges. Demonstrations got banished to the suburbs.
Then there’s the musical metaphor. When NATO was created in Washington on April 4, 1949, the soundtrack was Gershwin’s It Ain’t Necessarily So. When seven countries from the former Warsaw Pact were admitted in 2004, the soundtrack came from the ghastly Titanic blockbuster. For the 60th birthday bash in Baden-Baden – with the Barack Obama, Nicolas Sarkozy, Angela Merkel trio attending – it’s Georges Bizet’s Carmen.
As much as Carmen is a gypsy who believes a fortune-teller and ends up dead, NATO is a global traveler who may end up dead by believing fortune-teller Washington.
Sultans of swing
NATO certainly has plenty to celebrate. France, under adrenalin junkie Sarkozy – known in NATOland as the “Sultan of Bruni”, in reference to his smashing wife Carla – is back to NATO. Obama is presenting his new, comprehensive Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy to NATO. NATO “secures the peace” in Mafia-ridden Kosovo (an entity not recognized even by NATO members such as Spain and Greece). NATO, in full “war on terror” mode, acts like a supercop in the Mediterranean. NATO patrols the Horn of Africa looking for pirates. NATO trains Iraqi security forces. For a body of 60, NATO is fully fit.
Physically, NATO is a bureaucratic nightmare occupying a huge, horrid building on Blvd Leopold III in Mons, outside of Brussels, employing 5,200 civilians divided into 320 committees sharing an annual budget of $2.7 billion. These committees manage 60,000 combat troops scattered all around the world.
NATO should have been dead immediately after the fall of the enemy it was created to fight – the Soviet Union. Instead, NATO had a ball during the 1990s, when Russia was down and out and Russian president Boris Yeltsin spent more time filling up his vodka glass than worrying about geopolitics.
In 1999 – to the delight of weapons makers in the US industrial-military complex – NATO expanded to the Balkans via its devastating air war on Russian ally Serbia, sold to world public opinion by then US president Bill Clinton on humanitarian grounds when it was, in fact, humanitarian imperialism.
To say that NATO – a North Atlantic body – is overextended is an understatement. Members Romania and Bulgaria are nowhere near the Atlantic Ocean. Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia are landlocked. In Central Asia, Afghanistan (or at least the non-Taliban-controlled parts of it) is de facto occupied by NATO. Mega-bases such as Ramstein (Germany), Aviano (Italy) and Incirlik (Turkey) now have a counterpart halfway around the world in Bagram (Afghanistan).
Decades after the British Empire, “Europe” tries to (re)occupy the Hindu Kush. Afghanistan is NATO’s first war outside Europe and first ground war ever. It involves all 26 members (now 28; Albania and Croatia were finally admitted) plus 12 “partners”, including five European nations that used to be neutral: Austria, Finland, Ireland, Sweden and Switzerland. All of them are bound by NATO’s first-ever invocation of Article 5 of its charter, which determines mutual military assistance.
In a mix of reading the writing on the wall (this is an unwinnable war) and appeasing the fury of their pacifist public opinions, most European governments will never relent to Obama’s appeal – as charm offensive-laden as it may be – for more troops in Afghanistan. Opposition to the Afghan war in Germany, for instance, is around 70% (humanitarian aid is a different story).
Many countries, including the most powerful, will shun Obama’s demands based on secret “national provisos”. As lawyers in Berlin told NATO, for example, German soldiers are prohibited from launching a pre-emptive, on-the-ground attack on the Taliban.
That utterly misleading acronym, ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) used to be in charge of the Western occupation of Afghanistan starting in December 2001 – until, Transformer-style, it became a huge counter-insurgency (COIN) drive expanding all over the country all the way to western Pakistan. The management of this COIN is obviously American – first and foremost because it totally bypasses NATO’s very complex political voting mechanisms.
There’s nothing “international” about ISAF. ISAF is NATO. And with swarms of combat troops and air strikes there’s nothing “assistance” about it either.
ISAF/NATO is headquartered in Kabul, in a former riding club on renamed Great Masoud Road which was rebuilt into a veritable fortress. The buck stops with – what else is new – not an European, but an American, four-star General David McKiernan. As much as his personal mission in the 1970s was to prevent the Warsaw Pact from infiltrating West Germany, his mission nowadays is to prevent al-Qaeda from, in his words, “infiltrating Europe or the United States”.
By the way, if anybody had any doubts, this whole thing still falls under ongoing “Operation Enduring Freedom”, according to the Pentagon. This really “enduring” freedom applies to no less than Afghanistan, Pakistan, Cuba (because of Guantanamo), Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Jordan, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, the Philippines, Seychelles, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Uzbekistan and Yemen.
McKiernan’s big thing had to be the upcoming Obama Afghan surge – which will be executed by American, not NATO soldiers. After all, hardcore combat has nothing to do with ISAF’s original mandate. But the problem is in the fog of war and ISAF/NATO has become a TermiNATO – ensnared as much as the Americans in a peace-by-Predator logic. Call it the coalition of the unwilling. No wonder European public opinion is horrified.
And that leads to the breakdown of Obama lecturing NATO on his “AfPak” war, which needed, according to him, a “more comprehensive strategy, a more focused strategy, a more disciplined strategy”. In the end, Obama is reduced to hitting up the Europeans for more money.
The ISAF/NATO commander for all of southern Afghanistan, Dutch Major-General Mart de Kruif, believes the surge is the right thing – as US troops will go to “where they are most needed: to Kandahar and Helmand provinces”, where Taliban commanders “are capable of launching major operations”. As he told Dutch daily NRC Handelsblad, “we need more boots on the ground” and “we will also be able to transport more men and material via air transport”.
But when De Kruif talked about Petraeus’ Iraq-surge-replay plan of arming local militias, he at least let it be known how hard it will be. “If you’re going to arm local militia you need to make sure that they mirror the local power structure,” he said. “Also, the local police has to be effective enough to guide and control the militia. You don’t want some vague commander running the militia. You need to give the militia members the prospect of a job in the police force. And you need to have an exit strategy, a way to disband the militia again without having all those weapons disappear.”
Another Dutchman, pro-Iraq war Bush “poodle” Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, has been NATO’s secretary general since January 2004 (he leaves next July). At least he’s now admitting – to German weekly Der Spiegel – that the Afghan war “can’t be won militarily”. Instead, he believes success lies in capturing the “hearts and minds of the people”. Certainly not by accumulating bomb-a-wedding “collateral damage”. (“We must be careful to avoid civilian casualties while battling the insurgents,” he says.) Scheffer is also forced to admit that “cooperation with Iran” in Afghanistan is essential.
Time for PATO?
Key NATO powers France and Germany simply can’t afford to antagonize Russia. Germany is a virtual energy hostage of Gazprom. Unlike irresponsible Eastern Europeans, no French or German government would even contemplate being a hostage of a New Cold War between Russia and the US (one of the key reasons why NATO membership for Georgia and the Ukraine is now virtually dead in the water). Paris and Berlin know Moscow could easily station missiles in Kaliningrad or in Russian-friendly Belarus pointed towards them.
Russia’s colorful ambassador to NATO Dmitry Rogozin has the definitive take on NATO’s spy-versus-spy obsession of encircling Russia. As he told Der Spiegel, “The closer their bases get to us, the easier it is for us to strike them. We would have needed missiles in the past. Today, machine guns are sufficient.” As for Georgia and Ukraine as NATO members, Rogozin adds, why not invite “Hitler, Saddam Hussein and [Georgian president Mikhail] Saakashvili.”
Russia, Rogozin told French daily Le Monde, expects NATO to become “a modern political and military alliance”, not a “globocop” (as Der Spiegel dubs it). Russia expects a partnership – not encirclement. Rogozin could not be more explicit on the Russian position regarding Afghanistan: “We want to prevent the virus of extremism from crossing the borders of Afghanistan and take over other states in the region such as Pakistan. If NATO failed, it would be Russia and her partners that would have to fight against the extremists in Afghanistan.”
The NATO-Russia Council is bound to meet again. Moscow’s official view is of a security order stretching “from Vancouver to Vladivostok”. Something even more ambitious than NATO: “Perhaps NATO could develop into PATO, a Pacific-Atlantic alliance. We just cannot allow troublemakers to deter us.”
Messing with Russia, anyway, was never a good idea – except for history and geography deprived neo-conservatives. In 2008 alone, no less than 120,000 US and NATO troops transited through Manas airbase in Kyrgyzstan (the base will be closed this year). This, along with the neo-Taliban bombing of NATO’s supply routes in the Khyber Pass, has forced Petraeus to turn to the Caucasus (Georgia and Azerbaijan) as alternative military transit routes, and beg Kazakhstan and Tajikistan in Central Asia for help; this will only materialize if Russia says “yes”. Magnanimously, meanwhile, Russia has opened its territory for the transit of NATO supply convoys.
What is NATO for?
As much as Palestine is an invaluable test lab for the Israeli Defense Forces, Afghanistan, and now AfPak, is a lab for both the US and NATO for test driving weapons systems and variations of Petraeus’ COIN.
On the other hand, NATO incompetence has been more than evident in the drug front. Afghanistan under NATO occupation was back to being the world’s number one producer and exporter of opium. And that, in turn, led to the current US/NATO drug war.
So AfPak has really been a true Transformer war – from the hunt for Osama bin Laden to war against that portmanteau word “the Taliban” and to a Colombia-on-steroids drug war. And all this leaves aside the eternally invisible Pipelineistan angle – centered on the $7.6 billion Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline which the Bill Clinton administration wanted to go ahead with via an (aborted) deal with … the Taliban, who were in power in the second half of the 1990s.
Watching Obama’s actions so far, and considering the Pentagon mindset, there’s no evidence to support the possibility that Washington and NATO would abandon crucially strategic Afghanistan, which happens to be a stone’s throw from the heart of Eurasia.
Just ask China, Russia and observer member Iran of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The SCO was founded in June 2001, at first to fight transnational drug smuggling and Islamic fundamentalists and then started to promote all sorts of cooperation on energy, transportation, trade and infrastructure.
Both the US and NATO have totally ignored one of the SCO’s aims: to find a regional, non-weaponized solution for the enduring Afghan tragedy. The US and NATO’s intransigence during the Bush era is much to blame for the process of the SCO turning into Asia’s NATO. In Asian and Russian eyes, NATO has nothing to do with “nation-building”, peacekeeping or “humanitarian assistance”. And Afghanistan proves it. Asians don’t need a globocop – much less a TermiNATO.
Obama, McKiernan, Scheffer, no one will admit it – but many in Washington and Brussels would actually love NATO to really be a borderless TermiNATO, bypassing the UN to perform humanitarian imperialism all over the globe, taking out “al-Qaeda” and “terrorists” anywhere, protecting Pipelineistan and pipeline lands for Western interests in all directions.
The US, supported by NATO, was the midwife of a new incarnation of “Islamic fundamentalism” which should, as it did, get rid of the Soviets in Afghanistan and in the former, energy-rich Soviet republics. The fact that, millions of dead and millions of displaced people later, NATO is now asking for Russian help so as not be stranded in Afghanistan is just another bitter irony of AfPak history, and certainly not the last.