Friday, July 13, 2012

Is Designating Afghanistan a Major non-NATO Ally a Big Joke?

The short answer is yes; or at least, it's poorly considered.

Excellent essay by Nicholas Gvosdev for World Politics Review points out why:


Most reports indicate that this status was granted to Afghanistan to reassure the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai that the U.S. does not plan to abandon him after transferring responsibility for Afghan security to Afghan forces in 2014. But this is a troubling development, for it reveals the lack of trust Kabul has in Washington’s promises, even after months of Obama administration statements about the depth of America’s post-2014 commitment to Afghanistan.

The status conferred on Afghanistan requires the approval of both the secretaries of defense and state, and it is not merely an honorary position casually bestowed. A country so designated is able to take part in cooperative research and development projects with the U.S. Department of Defense and purchase advanced U.S. weaponry without being subject to many of the provisions of the Arms Control Export Act. The status also allows its companies to bid on some U.S. military contracts. And while there are no legally binding provisions committing the United States to defend the territorial integrity and sovereignty of such allies, being so designated usually indicates that the country in question is vital to U.S. national interests and that its well-being is of concern to Washington.

The original major non-NATO allies, designated during the first Bush administration in 1989, were Japan, South Korea, Egypt, Israel and Australia. All are countries with critical importance either to U.S. global strategy or regional interests. In subsequent years, other countries that were seen as frontline states in the war on terror, including Pakistan, Jordan and Morocco, or that were emerging as key partners in Asia, such as the Philippines or Thailand, were added to the list. Most security experts would agree that along with the NATO allies, the major non-NATO allies form the first tier of America’s national security relationships.

Afghanistan is a strange addition to the group. With its underdeveloped economy, Afghanistan is not going to be a major partner in developing the latest fifth-generation weapons systems, as is Japan. Nor is it strategically located to act as a staging ground for U.S. land, air or naval forces, as are Bahrain, Kuwait and the Philippines. It does not have a military or intelligence establishment that is able and willing to plug gaps in U.S. capabilities, as do Jordan and Morocco, and as did Egypt under Hosni Mubarak. 

Instead, Afghanistan’s importance to the U.S. is situational, linked largely to the threat that, under the right conditions, al-Qaida might try to reconstitute its former network of assets there. But much of al-Qaida’s operational network has already shifted to more-fertile locations elsewhere in the world. And to be perfectly frank, if Afghanistan does not again become the main safe haven for an international terrorist network determined to wage war on the U.S. and its allies, the country will return to the level of attention it held in U.S. strategic planning during the 1990s: overlooked and peripheral.

Some have argued that Afghanistan needed major non-NATO ally status in order to be eligible for continued U.S. military and security assistance, but there is no evidence that current regulations were preventing the Defense Department from providing the Afghan government with the equipment and training it needs for its armed forces and police. Nor are there any indications that Congress was preparing to restrict Afghanistan’s ability to obtain future tranches of security assistance.

The reality is that the “golden ticket” of major non-NATO ally status was proffered because the United States, over the years, has eroded the currency of another term that more accurately sums up the U.S.-Afghanistan relationship: strategic partner. For the past two decades, the very concept of “strategic partnership” has been debased, with the term often bandied about as a diplomatic consolation prize when Washington has been unprepared or unwilling to contemplate closer ties. It is understandable why the United States might seek to prevent countries that are not particularly close friends from turning into foes. But “strategic partnership” has been used to describe not only the U.S. relationship with countries such as China and Russia, but also with actual potential partners such as Brazil and India. Indeed, in official U.S. diplomatic language, with the exception of a few “rogues” like North Korea or Iran, most countries are now either U.S. “allies” or “partners.”

But if that is the case, then partnership no longer indicates any sort of special or preferred relationship. This helps to explain why Georgia, for example, is not satisfied with merely being a U.S. partner, but rather continues to pursue any chance, no matter how unrealistic, of gaining entry into the NATO alliance.  

Making Afghanistan a non-NATO ally simply to signify that Washington is serious about its pledged commitments to Kabul’s security threatens to weaken the whole designation itself. More broadly, the temptation to use the status as a way to say that Washington is really serious about a particular partnership runs the risk of devaluing the designation, similar to what has happened with “strategic partnerships.” Major non-NATO ally status should not be offered to a particular government in a country that happens to be temporarily at the top of Washington’s strategic agenda -- it should be reserved for countries where there is a long-term U.S. interest and where the desire for closer strategic relations is shared by most segments of that country’s political elite. The U.S.-Japan, U.S.-South Korea and U.S.-Australia relationships endure despite changes of government. Will the U.S.-Afghanistan relationship be similarly durable once Karzai is no longer in office in Kabul? 

Having made the commitment to Afghanistan, the U.S. must now see it through, lest it further devalue major non-NATO ally status. But it is time to take stock of all of America’s alliances and partnerships to ensure that they do not devolve into polite diplomatic gestures with little substantive meaning.  

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