By Ian Graham
February 22, 2010 - The North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s role has changed drastically in the nearly 61 years since it was created. What began initially as a device to “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down,” as the first NATO Secretary General famously said, has become a widely influential organization around the world. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for European and NATO Policy James Townsend said the change in NATO and U.S.-European relations over the 20 or so years he’s worked in the field has been tremendous. The organization continues to change and determine its role in the world, post-Cold War and post-9/11.
“In the 1990s, the conflict in the Balkans showed that NATO still has a role in providing stability within as well as outside of Europe,” Townsend said.
Currently NATO is involved in a number of missions, ranging from continued peacekeeping in the Balkans to anti-piracy activity off the coast of Africa and their biggest mission: managing the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.
Townsend said although it may seem unusual for NATO to be concerned with central Asia, there are a number of reasons, among them Pakistan and India, both nuclear states with tense relations. In addition, Iran borders Afghanistan to the west. Afghanistan is sort of a lynchpin in central Asia.
What happens in Afghanistan is key to peace and stability in the region, Townsend said. If things go badly, he continued, it creates the potential for instability that would easily and quickly affect European and American interests. International criminal groups, from terrorist organizations to human or drug trafficking organizations could have a safe place for their home base.
But as it is, the international effort in Afghanistan is producing positive results. The Taliban have been on the run in southern Afghanistan and Afghan military and police forces are taking over key jobs from ISAF.
“There are little green shoots coming up in Afghanistan,” Townsend said. “There’s a lot of work ahead to get these shoots to grow up, but there’s confidence in Kabul and NATO capitals that it will happen.”
But what happens after Afghanistan? Townsend isn’t sure, and neither exactly is NATO. In November, the heads of the NATO states will convene to put together a set of guidelines explaining the organization’s mission going into the future.
Townsend said NATO doesn’t want to be the world police, jetting around to solve problems globally. Rather, they want to determine what’s required of them to maintain security in the North Atlantic region.
“The big question is, ‘What will it require to make NATO take on another ISAF type mission?’” Townsend said.
He said there’s a big push to regain a sense of community between America and Europe. The only time Article Five was implemented was Sept. 11, 2001. Townsend said the U.S. wants to return to that feeling of unity and mutual support.
It’s paramount, he said, considering the borderless nature of terrorism and crime, especially cybercrime.
“In Iraq, we learned that without the political support from NATO, it was more difficult to carry out our mission. We’ve learned we have to act as a community – if we works with our allies, our mission will always be easier,” he said. “It will take our alliance, working as a community, to handle future threats.”
That community is on display currently in Afghanistan, he said. Many of the provincial reconstruction teams in Afghanistan are led by servicemembers from European nations, and troops from different nations are managing operations in different areas of the county.
For example, Townsend explained, while the effort in southern Afghanistan is primarily led by U.S. troops, operations in the western part of the country are handled by the Italian military.
“The allied effort [in Afghanistan] is something we stand in awe of,” Townsend said.