By William Pfaff
To adapt to secular use a phrase from medieval mysticism, “the cloud of unknowing” deepens as the war-waging countries of North America and Western Europe approach their NATO “summit,” beginning Friday in Lisbon, Portugal. The phrase is appropriate because in the past it spoke not only of the unknown, but the unknowable.
The meeting’s avowed purpose is to establish for the organization’s members the meaning and purpose of what NATO actually is doing today in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and what it proposes to do in the future.
An answer to the first question is very difficult. The head of the Afghan government, upon whose supposed behalf NATO is conducting a gruesome and costly war, has demanded that the alliance alter its tactics in Afghanistan, and reduce its efforts, ceasing its interference in the affairs of its supposed political protege. At the same moment NATO’s generals are intensifying their threats against the Afghanistan government, should it continue to resist what its protector, the United States, continues to do to the Afghan people, which is to behave to them as if they were an occupied nation being dictated to by a foreign power.
The policies of the Western powers today not only differ according to whether you are talking about (1) the United States, Britain and those countries who remain (generally unquestioning) Atlanticist allies; or (2) about other groups of alliance members, possibly doubtful about their position; or (3) about those other allies, for whom NATO’s war in Afghanistan has lost all interest, making no sense to them, and having no relevance to the security situation of Canada, for example, or the major continental powers, Germany and France, having become a politically necessary indulgence of a United States whose policy in security matters no longer makes sense to its allies. (Or, for that matter, to many of America’s citizens themselves, who, in the recent midterm elections, seem to have paid virtually no attention to the global trillion-dollar wars in which the nation is engaged in various parts of the Islamic world.)
American policy seems to these allies to be lost in fantasies as Alice was lost in a mathematician’s logical joke, in which all was reversed from what existed in real life, on the other side of the looking glass.
Why is NATO in Afghanistan? Because the U.S. insisted that it force its way into that country to sponsor a formally democratic exercise of nominations and elections that have resulted in an ethnic minority-dominated government that Washington now accuses of corruption, and of resisting its supposed role as a cooperative American client government, and which has thus far proven incapable of training disciplined military and police forces capable of safeguarding the country against the insurgence of a substantial (and ethnically distinct) population minority. NATO went to Afghanistan in order to impose such a government upon the Afghan people, despite the resistance of certain groups.
Why does NATO not withdraw and allow the Afghan people to settle among themselves who it is that will govern them? Unlike during the Cold War, there is no foreign power outside Afghanistan that arms and steers the group that resists being governed by the NATO-allied authorities in Kabul. Why should NATO not leave the Afghans to settle this among themselves?
The only logical reason that can be put forward is that the NATO nations are afraid of the rebel movement of religious radicals, the Taliban, and fear that if it should succeed in Afghanistan, it will succeed elsewhere. Can this be taken seriously?
Why should the 28 member nations of NATO, a vast population composed of all of the great Western industrial, military and nuclear powers, be afraid of the Taliban? Yet they seem to be, the American people first among them. It would seem to me to be absolutely essential that the NATO summit clarify in principle why NATO is in Afghanistan.
NATO was formed to defend Western Europe against the threat of a Soviet attack, and as an instrument by which a German army could be reconstituted on non-national terms. The postwar German army was not allowed a general staff. It is a NATO army under NATO command.
Those two original purposes have been achieved. Since the end of the Cold War, NATO has continued to exist chiefly out of bureaucratic inertia. It has lost its founding purposes, then it searched for and chose a new one, which was to become an auxiliary force to the U.S. in the conduct of American foreign policy, which is presented as the common policy of all the Western democracies, though it is not.
This is an unsatisfactory arrangement. As the war in Afghanistan continues to demonstrate, the 27 other members of NATO are not uniformly in agreement with American foreign policy, and there seems to be no reason why the young men and women of the NATO nations should be sacrificed to this alien purpose, unless the publics of the affected nations have the question put to them of a national policy and national allegiance that serves interests defined by Washington, and not by their own governments.
At the NATO summit, these issues should be presented and debated. One doubts that this will occur, but eventually these questions will have to be addressed, and the people given answers.
Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at www.williampfaff.com.
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