A Warning to NATO: Afghanistan Could Collapse

Roland Paris interviews Pulitzer-winner Steve Coll.
By: /
March 2, 2012

Steve Coll, the Pulitzer Prize-winning president of the New America Foundation and regular contributor to The New Yorker, spent a day in Ottawa last week discussing NATO’s exit strategy in Afghanistan.  His message was sobering and deserves to be printed out in a large font and placed on the desk of every NATO leader:

The greatest risk to NATO’s policy and investments in Afghanistan is that the country essentially cracks up under the pressure of the transition in 2014.

Understandably exhausted by years of war, the U.S. and its allies have little appetite for such a message.  Yet, Coll argues that NATO policy is on a trajectory that could end in a collapse of Afghanistan’s fragile governing arrangements and an explosion of violence far worse than what we have witnessed in the last decade – and perhaps as bad as, or worse than the civil war that devastated the country in the 1990s.

A principal problem, he maintains, is the short-sightedness of NATO’s political strategy in Afghanistan.  Right now, the U.S. is seeking to negotiate a deal with the Taliban – negotiations that may or may not bear fruit.  In the meantime, however, the U.S. and its allies are virtually ignoring a more fundamental issue:  How will Afghanistan’s political and governmental structures manage the transition to Afghan security leadership, scheduled for 2014?  Coll warns that these structures could “crack up” under the pressures of transition, with terrible effects on Afghan and regional security.

The focus now, he argues, should be on preparations for a peaceful, legitimate, constitutional transfer of political authority to a new Afghan government at the end of President Hamid Karzai’s term of office in 2014.  “Another fraudulent election” in Afghanistan could be the catalyst for collapse.

Yet, with the Obama administration distracted by other issues, including the U.S. presidential election campaign, NATO policy towards Afghanistan is largely on “autopilot,” he says.  Facing up to shortcomings of the current strategy is a “challenge of leadership,” not only for the U.S., but also for other NATO countries that have sacrificed for, and have an interest in, Afghanistan’s stability.

Below is the video of an interview in which Coll makes many of these points.  If you wish to hear more, you can also watch the video of his public lecture in Ottawa, or read Natalie Brender’s summary of his presentation.

Photo courtesy of Reuters