By Carol L. Bowers
American Forces Press Service
April 2, 2008 - NATO's effort in Afghanistan shows not only how far the alliance has come from its original mission of confronting the Cold War era's Soviet threat, but also how far it has to go to become a force for the 21st century. "There is little doubt that the mission in Afghanistan is unprecedented," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said at the 44th Munich Conference on Security Policy in February.
"It is, in fact, NATO's first ground war, and it is dramatically different than anything NATO has done before," Gates said. "However, on a conceptual level, I believe it falls squarely within the traditional bounds of the alliance's core purpose: to defend the security interests and values of the trans-Atlantic community."
With the fall of the Soviet Union, Western planners tried to imagine what the threats of the future would look like, the secretary said. "Afghanistan was, in reality, becoming exactly what we were discussing in theory," he said.
The threats to the world have profoundly changed, Gates added, noting that the action in Afghanistan demonstrates them all. Instability and conflict abroad do threaten people thousands of miles away. Terrorists and criminals take advantage of the latest technologies to spread their hate or sell their goods. Economic, social and humanitarian problems know no borders.
Drug traffickers find common ground with terrorists increasing the resources available to extremists in the region, while increasing the drug flow to European streets, Gates said. Safe havens, combined with a lack of development and governance, "allow Islamic extremists to turn a poisonous ideology into a global movement," he said.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, NATO nations set out to transform the alliance. Leaders decided NATO needed an expeditionary force capable of dealing with threats of this type and capable of helping other nations help themselves to avoid Afghanistan's fate.
"At the time, I imagine many were unsure of what, exactly, this would look like – what new structures, training, funding, mindsets, and manpower would be needed," Gates said. "Since then, however, we have applied our vision on the ground in Afghanistan."
Today, 43,250 troops from some 40 allies and partner nations serve under NATO command, thousands of miles from the alliance's geographic borders. Growing numbers of reconstruction and security training teams are making a difference in the lives of the Afghan people. NATO's offensive and counterinsurgency operations in the south have dislodged the Taliban from their strongholds and reduced their ability to launch large-scale or coordinated attacks.
"Due to NATO's efforts, ... Afghanistan has made substantial progress in health care, education, and the economy – bettering the lives of millions of its citizens," Gates said. "Through the Afghan mission, we have developed a much more sophisticated understanding of what capabilities we need as an alliance and what shortcomings must be addressed."
NATO officials are working on a strategic vision document to assess the achievements the alliance and its partners have made in Afghanistan and produce a set of realistic goals and a roadmap to meet them over the next three to five years.