February 8, 2008

Sharing the Burden in Afghanistan

Burden-sharing, the way in which NATO member states divide up their collective defence obligations, is a recurrent source of debate among the Allies.

Burden-sharing, the way in which NATO member states divide up their collective defence obligations, is a recurrent source of debate among the Allies.

The debates usually take the form of America asking Europe to make a greater contribution; the latest round, over troop contributions to NATO’s ISAF mission in Afghanistan, is no exception.
But the current argument has a new dimension – the degree to which the various allies are prepared to risk the lives of their service men and women for the common good.
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates noted on Wednesday that the Alliance risked being divided into those member states who were “willing to fight and die to protect people’s security and those who were not”, reflecting tensions within the Alliance over those countries whose soldiers are deployed in Afghanistan’s violent south and those operating in its more stable areas.
Estonia, whose troops are deployed in Afghanistan’s unstable Helmland province clearly sits on the ‘willing’ side of Mr Gates’s dividing line. With the sad deaths of Kalle Torn and Jako Karuks, Estonia has also paid a proportionally higher price than most contributing nations.
More traditional burden-sharing comparisons consider the level of a country’s contribution in comparison with its ‘ability to pay’. Estonia does well here, as the graph below shows.

The figures need to be treated with a little caution – published statistics on defence issues are rarely completely reliable, or compiled on a common basis (for example, Canada’s listed army size excludes large numbers of command, training and special forces troops, while the US figure excludes the 14 000 troops operating outside ISAF). Nonetheless, by any of these ‘ability to pay’ measures, Estonia’s contribution is a very respectable one.
In the end, though, the ISAF burden-sharing debate is not a helpful one. This kind of squabbling undermines the Allies’ sense of common purpose and threatens the glue that has held NATO together for 60 years. US criticism is likely to be resented and, ultimately, counter-productive. And it is certainly doing nothing to ease suffering in Afghanistan.
Furthermore, arguments about military burden-sharing mask what is needed to make progress in Afghanistan. While an appropriately sized and mandated military force is necessary for security, the root causes of Afghanistan’s troubles will not be addressed by military means, but by political, financial and civil ones. If the burden sharing debate belongs anywhere, it is perhaps among these issues – a comprehensive approach to the question.

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