The war against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan is the direct result of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Those attacks resulted in NATO invoking Article 5 of its Charter, and thus calling upon all NATO members to contribute to the defense of the United States. The war – for what this is worth – was also repeatedly endorsed by the UN Security Council. Simply put, the war, apart from being an expression of the inherent right of self-defense, has an excellent claim to be the most legally correct conflict in human history.
And yet, in spite of all of this, most of the European members of NATO have refused to contribute combat forces to winning the war on the ground. There are, certainly, honorable exceptions to this rule, such as the Dutch. But by and large, the main burden of the fighting has been carried by the U.S. and Britain, with important support from Australia and Canada. Most of the European states have skulked far behind the front lines, complaining about the supposed illegality of the war in Iraq, while failing even to make a success of their civilian mission in Afghanistan.
Over the past weeks, the Anglo-American alliance has once again demonstrated that it is the only part of NATO that is willing to take security seriously. President Obama has committed to victory in the war, and has begun a surge that will amount to an extra 21,000 troops. The only unfortunate part of this commitment is that it reflects the administration’s realization – after talking tough before the inauguration – that Europe will not offer any more combat troops. All the good will supposedly generated by Obama’s election victory has turned out to be worthless. While this comes as no surprise, it is regrettable that the Europeans are being let off the hook so easily.
Today, the British showed again why they are an ally the United States can rely upon. Prime Minister Gordon Brown has offered to deploy additional British forces to Afghanistan to provide increased security for the upcoming elections. He conditioned this support on appropriate burden-sharing with other NATO allies, but he must have made the offer in the realization that this burden-sharing will not materialize, and that, in the end, the British forces will simply have to be sent in any case.
The additional British commitment is not large: hundreds of troops. But the British are already stretched thin. The regrettable reality of both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s time in office is that, while they have stood beside the United States in word and in deed, they have allowed Britain’s forces to wither. As Shadow Secretary of State for Defense Liam Fox pointed out two days ago, the size of the British forces have fallen by a fifth since 1997, at a time when these forces has been almost continuously engaged.
Today’s developments go to show that the Anglo-American alliance remains vital. But it is also yet more evidence that both the U.S. and Britain need to repair and reinvest in their forces. If they do not, Afghanistan should remind them that no one else will come forward to bear the burden of defending freedom.