The United States and Europe will use the NATO summit opening today in Chicago to demonstrate that they are on the same page for ending the war in Afghanistan and building that war-torn country's long-term security. It's no surprise the allies want to show unity and relief after 11 wearying years of a costly war. But the alliance is sharply divided over what NATO can expect when it leaves after 2014. And the cash-strapped West has not resolved how far it should go to build a modern Afghan state, much less who would pay for it or what NATO would do if the Taliban returned and democracy failed.
The allies must put some meat on their plans at the summit in areas such as:
Roles after 2014. President Barack Obama's repeated calls for an "orderly" end to NATO's combat mission reflects unease on both sides of the Atlantic with any open-ended military role. While the strategic partnership with Afghan President Hamid Karzai calls for U.S. forces to play a supporting role, NATO is split over the size, scope and duration of military assistance. France's newly elected Socialist government has backed off, for now, on its call for a troop withdrawal this year. While the United States envisions NATO forces acting primarily as trainers for the Afghan military, Obama has a challenge to sell that to Europe as Afghan troops increasingly turn their weapons against their NATO coalition partners.
Who pays? Though NATO maintains that the summit is about cost sharing, not strategy, the fact is that the allies' refusal to fund a robust Afghan army has already forced major cuts in that country's planned security force. Even the force of 230,000 — about one-third smaller than originally designed — puts NATO on the hook for $4 billion a year for the next 10 years. The United States is expected to pay roughly half. Europeans in danger of losing their jobs and pensions are in no mood to contribute more to the corrupt Karzai government. And NATO is also split over spending on security versus development aid.
Plan B. Any decadelong commitment assumes that Karzai and his successor will keep insurgents at bay and stay true to democratic reforms. But there is doubt about the first and anxiety about the second. Afghan security forces are only now taking responsibility for night raids, intelligence and other key operational functions. And recent peace overtures have foundered as insurgents have assassinated top intermediaries. As NATO withdraws militarily and economically, the boot also loosens on Karzai, who will have less incentive to clean up his government, much less build a functional, modern state. If Afghanistan deteriorates, does NATO wipe its hands, start over, or seek to limit losses with covert strikes from Pakistan?
These questions are central to NATO's withdrawal schedule, to its role after 2014, and to the expectations the alliance should have about Afghanistan's long-term security. NATO should tackle them head-on in Chicago.