Maybe the time has arrived to negotiate a new alliance to replace the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
I'm not really sure if anyone can really define what NATO is today. We know what it was right up until the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union. It was Western Europe and North America (plus Turkey) aligned against the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact. Most of us could even draw the line of demarcation between the two sides. Plain as day, black and white.
NATO's job was to deter Soviet expansion into Western Europe. Sure there was also the business about keeping open the sea lanes but the centre of attention was always the Fulga Gap and the image of thousands of Soviet tanks pouring through on a mad drive to the English Channel.
What is NATO's mission today? Where lies the commonality of interests among its member states? Is NATO to be transformed into an anti-terrorism force? Is it to become an instrument of regime change? Peacekeeping, peacemaking? Warfighting? What? Is its sphere of influence to be global and, if not, what areas are we going to deal with and what are we not?
What of the emerging economic giants and their associated rearmament/arms races? Who will deal with China and ought NATO to define, well in advance, the extent and limits of any future role in Asia?
I think we really do have to begin by finding our commonality of interests - economic, political and security. I'll bet you there are a whole bunch of new members of NATO who don't really have all that much in common with some of the founding nations.
One of the reasons Iraq and Afghanistan are such messes is that our side had such a poor understanding of regime change. We went in to get rid of an existing regime but without much thought as to what would go in to fill the vacuum. In Afghanistan, in particular, that meant we got our figurehead (Karzai) and allowed warlords, thugs and drug barons to entrench their power beyond the immediate borders of Kabul. That has to be graded as an abject failure.
Now we know that when you invade a country and drive out its leaders you have to flood the place with troops and equipment and supplies, you have to focus on securing what you've conquered and getting civilian society restored just as quickly as you possibly can. That still hasn't been accomplished in Iraq or, after six years, in Afghanistan.
We've relearned the lesson everyone thought had been etched in stone after Vietnam - you don't go in without a clear exit strategy. There isn't one for Iraq and there isn't one for Afghanistan. At the risk of sounding circuitous, going in with a clear exit strategy means going in with a clear understanding of what you're there to accomplish and taking along all the troops, equipment and supplies you'll need to do just that. If you don't go in right, you have pretty poor odds of getting out right.
Look at all these NATO "summits" which are thinly veiled efforts to patch together the bungled adventure in Afghanistan. While that is necessary, the member nations need to start the groundwork to achieve a clear consensus of what may come after Afghanistan and what the alliance is prepared and not prepared to do when it arrives. If we don't, we're just letting ourselves in for another Afghanistan.
I think we need to recognize that NATO was never cut out to do the Afghanistan mission. We went over there, once we agreed to take over so the US could go play in Iraq, with a force trained and equipped for conventional warfare in Europe. Sort of like showing up in a tux at a barbeque. We didn't, however, go in prepared to really tackle an insurgency much less the equally destabilizing threats of the opium trade and warlordism and Pakistan and Iran and meddling India - well you name it. If you've got a house with four rooms on fire and you can't even handle the blaze in one room, sorry, but that house is going to burn to the ground.
So how do we get out? Well, we're starting to edge our way to the door by lowering our sights. You haven't heard a lot lately about democracy and women's rights for the Afghan people. There's been a clear but quiet shift over to a "stable" rather than a democratic government and the whole women's issue went out the window with the establishment of fundamentalist warlordism. We can't handle the Pashtun problem, we're sure as hell not going to go picking fights with the Uzbeks, Tajiks and Hazara. And that means democracy is out. And human rights, you can pretty much write that off too.
My guess? I think we're going to have to leave Afghanistan not all that different than we found it. We'll create a national army for Karzai or his successor and split. Whether that army lasts for long before it gets torn apart by the pressures of tribalism is a serious question, one let's hope that doesn't get answered before we're gone.
The future of Afghanistan may be decided as much by China as by us. While we were asleep at the switch, swatting away at the insurgency, China snapped up the rights to Afghanistan's enormous copper deposits in the north. And, with the railway corridor the Chinese are building to haul that copper out they're probably ideally positioned to also exploit the gas and oil deposits that have reportedly been found in the north.
I guess the point I'm trying to make is that NATO has to ensure it doesn't get dragged into another Afghanistan or any other foreign mission as unprepared as it has been this time. To do that, the Alliance has to renegotiate its terms to achieve a consensus that binds all members. In the process we may find that there are some member states that aren't willing to be true allies but let's find that out now, not later.
We have to begin this at home. Our parliament needs to examine what Canada wants and needs out of NATO and how we want it changed. Given the hillarity of the "debate" we supposedly just had about extending our Afghanistan committment to 2011, we better make sure we start taking this issue a lot more seriously.