December 11, 2001 – Print Edition, Page A25
With the military defeat of the Taliban, a first
phase of the campaign in Afghanistan is over. While Al-Qaeda
mastermind Osama bin Laden and Taliban overlord Mullah
Mohammed Omar are still at large and may require
considerable military effort to track down, it is
possible now to discuss several propositions.
First, military firepower matters. U.S. capacities so
far outstrip those of even its best-equipped allies that
NATO capabilities have proved irrelevant in the recent
military campaign. Allies have helped with diplomatic
support, intelligence and action against suspected
terrorists or terrorist sympathizers within their own
borders. But they have had little to offer militarily.
Second, from Washington's perspective, a military
hub-and-spoke command operation has worked far better
than the consensus decision-making on which it and other
allies relied during the air campaign over Kosovo and
Serbia in 1999, which left many in the Pentagon deeply
frustrated. NATO's political unity was critical in
staring down Moscow at that time, and a less efficient
command format was then well worth some irritation among
military brass in Washington. But it was not necessary
in the Afghanistan theatre (and may never be again).
Third, key allies are decisively weakened
diplomatically when they have nothing much to offer
militarily. For years, successive U.S. administrations
have pleaded with leading European and other allies to
increase their military spending, enhance their
capabilities and rationalize their defence industries.
(In fact, Washington would have been pleased if the
Europeans had scrapped their own defence industries
altogether and relied on American ones.) Efforts within
the European Union to create an EU-wide, rapidly
deployable military force have become bogged down (as
has so much else in Brussels) in euro-wrangling.
Technological and other gaps between the U.S. and
European weaponry are now such that U.S. dominance
cannot be challenged.
In the absence of any significant military
contribution to the coalition effort in Afghanistan, it
proved impossible for U.S. allies to prevail, as of
mid-November, in their argument that an international
peacekeeping force needed to be deployed in the parts of
Afghanistan newly freed of Taliban control. Washington
has let General Tommy Franks, at Central Command in
Tampa, call the military shots, and veto any
operationally related diplomatic initiatives. In a rare,
public diplomatic clash, Washington faced down the
United Kingdom and other allies in late November,
refusing to contemplate a peacekeeping force of any sort
in Afghanistan until Gen. Franks is ready for one.
Significantly, in this campaign, Gen. Franks has no real
allied opposite numbers, in spite of the presence of
several allied liaison teams in Tampa.
This explains why, in welcoming the agreement reached
at the Bonn conference held under UN auspices to develop
an interim government in Afghanistan, the UN Security
Council failed last week to mandate any international
military presence to help secure Kabul and other major
Afghan centres. The United States does not dispute the
need for such a force, at least in Kabul, but it has
insisted that priority be given to its own military
Diplomatic confusion has been rife for weeks now.
With the United States focused on important but narrow
military goals, it has been difficult for those
countries prepared to contribute to a peacekeeping force
to organize themselves and articulate a strategy (in
consultation with the UN's point man for Afghanistan,
Lakhdar Brahimi, the hero of the Bonn negotiations).
Thus, even passively, the United States retains
significant diplomatic blocking power.
This was demonstrated when Canada offered to lead a
coalition of countries into Eastern Zaire in late 1996
to provide urgently needed security for humanitarian
assistance efforts. A lack of enthusiasm in the
Pentagon, privately shared in London, proved sufficient
to torpedo the effort, with tragic results on the
Of many international actors jockeying for position
ever since the attacks of Sept. 11 in the United States,
Russia and China may have gained the most. While
co-operation of NATO allies with Washington in its hour
of need can never have been greatly in doubt, diplomatic
and intelligence support from Moscow, freely offered,
has allowed President Vladimir Putin to reposition his
country diplomatically, netting him a vastly enhanced
relationship with NATO as of last week.
Beijing has demonstrated to the United States that
its diplomatic support, in the UN Security Council and
well beyond, carried real value. This has dispelled
dyspeptic talk of "strategic adversaries" in
Washington, and the earlier sour approach of the Bush
administration to the governments of several major
In fact, Moscow, on the ground, has been up to some
of its old tricks. It maintained, straight-faced, at the
United Nations that no international peacekeeping
deployment could proceed without a request from a
legitimate Afghan governing authority that did not yet
exist, thereby annoying the United Kingdom and France,
which have attached priority to such a deployment.
Simultaneously, Russia sent into Kabul large numbers of
military transport aircraft and "construction
engineers," purportedly to shore up local medical
facilities and rebuild the Russian Embassy. This,
Russian diplomats explained, was legitimated by a
request of the rump Northern Alliance government, led by
failed warlord Burhanuddin Rabbani, still formally
recognized at the UN until the successful conclusion of
the Bonn conference.
On the effect the move had in unhelpfully emboldening
Russia's close friends within the Northern Alliance,
these diplomats had little to say. Although Russia's
actions recalled its near-farcical dash to occupy the
airport at Pristina in Kosovo in 1999 before NATO forces
could reach it, Moscow may have gained more leeway in
testing the limits of its new freedom of manoeuvre vis
à vis Washington than key NATO allies retain.
In days and weeks ahead, we will see agreement among
a number of countries, eventually mandated by the
Security Council, to deploy a peacekeeping mission to
the Afghan capital. The danger here is that while it
should prove possible to extend a degree of security to
the capital, the writ of the government there may not
extend much beyond the "Republic of Kabul."
Some security in Afghanistan is better than none, but
its absence in broad swathes of the country will make it
difficult and dangerous for the UN, the Red Cross
system, the World Bank and non-governmental
organizations to provide assistance and to help underpin
economic recovery and reconstruction.
In sum, Washington is not only in complete military
control of the coalition it built to support its
objectives in combating al-Qaeda and the Taliban, but it
is also in a position of uncontested diplomatic
dominance, exercised both actively and passively. It is
not operating multilaterally: Echoing U.K. and U.S.
efforts at the UN to move toward "smart
sanctions" against Iraq, it might be described as
practising "smart unilateralism."
If the allies do not much like this, they have only
themselves to blame. For years, they have been content
to see Washington consolidate its lead in military
capacity. Washington will also now, very largely, call
the tune of the international diplomatic minuet.
This does not mean that it can dispense with
engagement of allies on issues such as trade,
environmental protection and the international financial
system. But its hand is not only strong, it is much
strengthened, and its partners' protests about American
unilateralism have fallen largely silent for now.
David M. Malone is president of the International
Peace Academy in New York.