Outgoing defense secretary Robert Gates’s final policy speech in office, on June 10 in Brussels, laid out the problems and anomalies of NATO more clearly than any figure of such authority has done before. He was upbeat about most aspects of the Afghanistan operation, which, he usefully reminded us, is the first actual ground combat NATO as an alliance has ever fought, as well as the first serious test of the alliance in this century. In 2006, there were 20,000 non-U.S. NATO combat troops in Afghanistan, and that number has doubled; and 850 non-American combat deaths have been incurred, in the case of a number of countries, their first since World War II.
Gates claimed substantial success for the mission in the last 18 months, since the U.S.-led surge, though he skimmed lightly over the fact that Pres. George W. Bush led the alliance into Afghanistan and then leapfrogged over Iran to invade and occupy and nation-build in Iraq, leaving the alliance with no leadership in Afghanistan and a threadbare holding action as a mission statement. The fact that the Canadians, British, French, Dutch, Poles, Germans, Australians, and a few others kept the country from being completely retaken by the Taliban was a signal accomplishment that has rarely been mentioned by American leaders, including on this occasion. (Canada led the very modest forces the alliance then had around Kandahar and prevented the enemy from recapturing its historic center of strength and support.)
It remains a mystery how the U.S. government, contrary to all tradition in this country, squares its alliance with Pakistan, well lubricated by expensive assistance to the Pakistani military (which consumes 13 times as much money as is spent on education in that country), with substantial Pakistani support for the Haqqani Taliban, which provides approximately 30 percent of the armed opposition to NATO in Afghanistan.
The careers of Douglas MacArthur and Harry S Truman came to spectacular and somewhat undignified ends 60 years ago in a fracas over sending draftee forces into mortal combat in Korea for an objective short of victory. If a generously supported ostensible ally in the theater, such as Nationalist China (Taiwan), Japan, or the Philippines, had been supporting the North Koreans, Truman would have been impeached and removed from office, and MacArthur would have crushed North Korea in its cradle (a joyous consummation) and (conventionally) bombed such industry as China then possessed into rubble, while smashing the People’s Army, but at a cost of at least another 20,000 American and allied soldiers’ lives.
It devolves upon the United States to try to convince Pakistan of the danger, futility, and terrible consequences of continuing to promote Islamic terror in Afghanistan and India (which has a larger Muslim population than Pakistan, albeit a chronic minority in that huge country), but Gates, as he left office, understandably passed on that hideously intractable problem. If NATO manages to extract a satisfactory outcome in Afghanistan despite the antics of Pakistan, the corruption of the Afghan government, and the simultaneous effort to exterminate and negotiate with the Taliban, it will be a more astounding, though obviously less important, achievement than the collapse of the Soviet Union.