The disastrous policy in Iraq has sucked all the oxygen out of the Washington policy system and too little attention is being paid to the looming problem of Afghanistan. Ironically, that is the war that is truly linked to 9/11 and in which our NATO allies have come to our aid. But by far the biggest problem that NATO faces today is Afghanistan. The Karzai government in Kabul remains weak, and the economy is heavily dependent upon production of opium. The Taliban and Al Qaeda networks are re-emerging as political and military threats. Many of the NATO countries with troops in Afghanistan have "national caveats" that restrict how their troops can be used. While the recent Riga summit relaxed some of these caveats to allow assistance to allies in dire circumstances, Britain, Canada, Netherlands and the United States are doing most of the fighting in southern Afghanistan while French, German, and Italian troops are deployed in the quieter northern part of the country.
It is difficult to see how NATO can succeed in stabilizing Afghanistan unless it is willing to commit considerably more troops, and give the commanders more flexibility in their deployment. Success will also require more funds for reconstruction, development, and alternatives to opium poppy cultivation. Governments in Europe and the United States are concerned about budget problems, but in a larger perspective, providing much greater resources to Afghanistan now may turn out to save more funds later. One of the great costs of the Bush Administration's mistaken policy in Iraq has been to divert attention and resources away from the just war in Afghanistan. If only a small portion of the money and forces invested in Iraq had been invested in Afghanistan, the current threat of a resurgent Taliban and Al Qaeda might not be so great. One must hope that Washington will recognize this peril as it debates Iraq policy after the submission of the Baker-Hamilton commission report. But alas, the people thinking about Iraq are also those who must consider Afghanistan, and that means that few people are focused on saving NATO from a significant failure in its first major test of the proposition "out of area or out of business."