Page 1 of 2 NATO weaves South Asian web
By M K Bhadrakumar
What the summit meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) at
Lisbon last month brought to mind almost instinctively was that the persistent
rumors about the alliance's death were indeed greatly exaggerated. The striking
thing was the degree of internal unity and outward determination among the
alliance's 28 members.
In recent years, derisive dismissals have featured galore in international
discourse about the "dysfunctional irrelevance" of NATO and an alliance
characterized as a "Cold War relic". In South Asia - Indian, in particular -
this almost resulted in an intellectual ellipsis while dwelling on the overall
United States regional strategies in the overlapping Afghanistan-Pakistan
conflicts. In fact, NATO hardly figured in the Indian discourses on Afghanistan
as an issue of consequence.
Facile impressions gathered in the South Asian strategic community that the US
was desperately seeking an "exit strategy" in Afghanistan and was about to "cut
and run" from the Hindu Kush.
The NATO summit in Lisbon at the end of November, therefore, came as an
eye-opener for South Asians. Voices in the transatlantic space that questioned
the continued the raison d'etre of the alliance have fallen completely silent.
Equally, alliance members of both Old and New Europe seem to have recognized
that NATO has successfully maneuvered though a transitional phase and completed
a process of adjustment in the post-Cold War era. Fundamental divergences in
matters of alliance policy are no more.
Quite obviously, the alliance is well on the way to transforming into a global
political-military role, and it is forward-looking. There are skeptical voices
still that in an era of European austerity, a question mark ought to be put on
the alliance's ambitions. European cutbacks in military deployment and rigorous
savings programs in defense budgets should not be overplayed, either. NATO is
by far today the most powerful military and political alliance in the world.
The US has always been the main provider of the alliance's budget - almost 75%
currently - as well as its "hard power". The perceived widening of the
US-Europe "divide", however, presents a complex scenario as regards the
alliance's evolution as a security organization in the 21st century.
As NATO secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen underlined at the Lisbon
summit, "The United States would look elsewhere for its security partner." A
kind of "division of labor" in international interventions becomes necessary
for the US. The Iraq war showed that it is already happening.
The various partnership programs of NATO in Central Asia and the Gulf
Cooperation Council and the Mediterranean regions can be viewed as part of the
overall approach to take recourse to other states or groups of states to
promote the Euro-Atlantic interests globally.
In a manner of speaking, the "concepts" of power are expanding and NATO is
seeking ways and means to eliminate unwanted duplications so as to coordinate
more efficiently. At any rate, the handwringing over NATO's impending retreat
from the world arena as a military alliance pretty much ended in Lisbon.
On the other hand, it has been replaced by an unequivocal acceptance of the
continued raison d'etre of the trans-Atlantic alliance - and the US's
leadership role in it - as well as the need of a robust search for partnerships
in other regions. Clearly, the US will continue to give primacy to its
transatlantic security partnership and intends to use NATO as a key instrument
for exerting influence globally as well as for preventing the emergence of any
independent power center that challenges its preeminence.
US President Barrack Obama's tour of the Asian region in November (just before
NATO gathered in Lisbon), which included stops in India, Indonesia and South
Korea, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's extensive tours of the members
of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the Asia-Pacific region in
recent months underscore that the US is bolstering defense ties in the region
and scouting for underpinnings for the future expansion of NATO's partnerships
in the region.
The thrust of the US strategy is quite clear. To quote former US secretary of
state Madeline Albright, who headed NATO's Task Force to develop its new
Strategic Concept adopted at the Lisbon summit, "[The] alliance is a solid
house that would benefit from new locks and alarm system."
Rasmussen corroborated that the Lisbon summit's objective was to "ensure that
NATO is more effective and more efficient" than ever before. He added: "More
effective, because NATO will invest in key capabilities like missile defense,
cyber-defense and long-range transport. More engaged, because NATO will reach
out to connect with our partners around the globe, countries and other
organizations. And more efficient, because we are cutting fat, even as we
invest in muscle."
These objectives constituted the foundation of the New Strategic Concept for
the coming decade adopted in Lisbon. As the objectives were fleshed out, three
tasks got highlighted: collective defense, comprehensive crisis management and
cooperative security. The Strategic Concept states, "We are firmly committed to
preserve its [NATO's] effectiveness as the globe's most successful
The core task will be to defend Europe and ensure the collective security of
its 28 members, while the Strategic Concept envisages NATO's prerogative to
mount expeditionary operations globally.
The document explicitly says, "Where conflict prevention proves unsuccessful,
NATO will be prepared and capable to manage ongoing hostilities. NATO has
unique conflict-management capacities, including the unparalleled capability to
deploy and sustain robust military forces in the field."
The alliance pledged to strengthen and modernize its conventional forces and to
develop the full range of military capabilities. It will remain a nuclear
alliance while developing a missile defense capability. The Strategic Concept
reaffirmed that NATO will forge partnerships globally and reconfirmed the
commitment to expand its membership to democratic states that meet the
To be sure, the Western alliance's habitation in the South Asian region will be
shaping the geopolitics of the region in the coming period, and vice versa.
The discourses in the region blithely assumed until recently that NATO would
have no appetite for far-flung operations and was desperately looking for an
exit strategy in Afghanistan. On the contrary, what stood out from the Lisbon
summit is that the NATO psyche comes out of the bloody war unscathed and,
conceivably, the US may succeed in attaining a politically acceptable outcome
for NATO's continued engagement in Afghanistan (and Pakistan).
'Robust, enduring partnership' with Kabul
Several questions arise as NATO transforms as a global security organization
and establishes its long-term presence in the South Asian region. Will NATO be
prepared to subject itself to the collective will of the international
community as represented in the UN Charter, or will Article 5 of its charter
(an armed attack against one or more [NATO members] in Europe or North America
shall be considered an attack against them all ....) continue to be the
There are huge uncertainties regarding regional security in South Asia. Border
issues and beliefs and resentments expressed in Manichean categories, etc, are
ransacking the security environment in the region.
The Western alliance has great experience in offering reassuring collective
security and promoting reconciliation between the former Allied and Axis
powers, as the difficult termination of Franco-German hostility shows. Will
NATO aspire to be a framework for stabilizing the highly volatile and dangerous
geopolitical situation in the South Asian region?
NATO is assertively proclaiming its preeminence as a security organization on
the global plane and is yet sticking to its trans-Atlantic moorings against a
backdrop where Europe's (the Western world's) dominance in international
politics is on the wane and there is a shift in the locus of political and
economic activity shifting away from the North Atlantic toward Asia.
To quote Zbigniew Brzezinski, "Whether they are "rising peacefully" (a
self-confident China), truculently (an imperially nostalgic Russia) or
boastfully (an assertive India, despite its internal multiethnic and religious
vulnerabilities), they all desire a change in the global pecking order. The
future conduct of an relationship among these three still relatively cautious
revisionist powers will further intensify the strategic uncertainty."
From a seemingly reluctant arrival in Afghanistan seven years ago in an
"out-of-area" operation as part of the UN-mandated ISAF [International Security
Assistance Force], with a limited mandate, NATO is suo moto stepping out
of the ISAF, deepening its presence and recasting its role and activities on a
long-term basis. South Asian security will never be the same again.
At the Lisbon summit, NATO and Afghanistan signed a declaration as partners.
The UN didn't figure in this, and it is purely bilateral in content. The main
thrust of the declaration is to affirm their "long-term partnership" and to
build "a robust, enduring partnership which complements the ISAF security
mission and continues beyond it."
It recognizes Afghanistan as an "important NATO partner… contributing to
regional security". In short, NATO and Afghanistan will "strengthen their
consultation on issues of strategic concern" and to this end develop "effective
measures of cooperation" which would include "mechanisms for political and
military dialogue… a continuing NATO liaison in Afghanistan… with a common
understanding that NATO has no ambition to establish a permanent military
presence in Afghanistan or use its presence in Afghanistan against other
NATO and Afghanistan will initiate discussion on a Status of Forces Agreement
within the next three years. The Declaration also provides for the inclusion of
"non-NATO nations" in the cooperation framework.
The Lisbon summit, in essence, confirmed that the NATO military presence in
Afghanistan will continue even beyond 2014, which has been the timeline
suggested by Afghan President Hamid Karzai for Kabul to be completely in charge
of the security of the country.
President Obama summed up: "Our goal is that the Afghans have taken the lead in
2014 and in the same way that we have transitioned in Iraq, we will have
successfully transitioned so that we are still providing a training and support
NATO may undertake combat operations beyond 2014 if and when a need arises. As
Obama put it, all that is happening by 2014 is that the "NATO footprint in
Afghanistan will have been significantly reduced. But beyond that, it's hard to
anticipate exactly what is going to be necessary… I'll make that determination
when I get there."
Clearly, the billions of dollars that have been pumped into the upgrading of
Soviet-era military bases in Afghanistan in the recent period and the
construction of new military bases, especially in Mazar-i-Sharif and Herat
regions bordering Central Asia and Iran, fall into perspective.
Reaching out to India
As the biggest South Asian power, India seems to have been quietly preparing
for this moment, backtracking gradually from its traditional stance of seeking
a "neutral" Afghanistan free of foreign military presence. Of course, the
bottom line for the Indian government is that the foreign policy should be
optimally harmonized with US regional strategies. Therefore, all signs are that
India as a "responsible regional power" will not fundamentally regard the NATO
military presence in zero-sum terms.
Several considerations will influence the Indian approach in the coming period.
One, India is an direct beneficiary of the US's "Greater Central Asia"
strategy, which aims at drawing that region closer to South Asia by creating
new linkages, especially economic.
Second, India has no strong views regarding NATO's partnership programs in
Central Asia - unlike Russia or China, which harbor disquiet over it. At a
minimum, there is no conflict of interest between India and NATO on this score.
On the outer side, India would see advantages if NATO indeed works on a
strategy to "encircle" China in Central Asia. The US military base in Manas,
Kyrgyzstan, the induction of a fleet of AWACS (airborne warning and control
system) aircraft into Afghanistan, and so forth give the alliance certain
capability already to monitor the Xinjiang and Tibet regions where China has
located its missiles targeted at India.
It is within the realms of possibility that NATO would at a future date deploy
components of the US missile defense system in Afghanistan. Ostensibly directed
against the nearby "rogue states", the missile defense system will challenge
the Chinese strategic capability. Meanwhile, India is also developing its
missile defense capabilities and future cooperation with the US in the sphere
is on the cards.
The stated Indian position so far has been that it will not identify with any
military alliance or bloc. Having said that, it is also important to note that
India enjoys observer status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization [SCO] and
is seeking full membership in it. There has been a dichotomy insofar as
incrementally, India's contacts with NATO have been gathering steam.