While European allies have been working to establish an autonomous ESDP within the EU, the United States has been tugging in the opposite direction, seeking new roles and missions for the alliance as the NATO enlargement process and NATO engagement in the Balkans begin to wind down. The attacks on September 11, 2001, were a seminal event in this regard, demonstrating
that the most important security threats to NATO members, military or otherwise, emanated from outside of Europe and that NATO was poorly equipped to handle them. Although NATO invoked Article 5 for the first time in its history in the wake of the September 11 attacks and allies came forward with offers of military support for the subsequent military operation in Afghanistan, the United States found that European allies had little useful to offer. U.S. rejection of most of the offers ruffled allied feathers and raised questions about the relevance of a military alliance where only one member could project significant, high-end, expeditionary military power.
The U.S. response to this conundrum was twofold. The first was to persuade
European allies to pool their limited resources to establish a single, multinational, European-centered NATO Response Force (NRF), trained and equipped to U.S. standards, that would be able to deploy quickly and fight effectively alongside U.S. forces. The second, closely related to the first, was to persuade allies that NATO needed to extend its mandate beyond the traditional borders of Europe so that NATO forces could go out-of-area to where the threats actually were. Even the French were able to appreciate this logic, and the two initiatives were adopted without serious controversy at the Prague summit in November 2002.
Despite this effort to reinvigorate the alliance, however, NATO found itself
deeply enmeshed in one of the most serious crises in its history just three months later when France, Germany, and Belgium vetoed having NATO undertake precautionary planning to provide military assistance to Turkey in the event of an invasion by Iraq. Although this incident and the Iraq war itself
divided allies down the middle, reflecting further unraveling of the Cold War consensus, the fact that EU-member allies were themselves divided over Iraq resulted in very little damage being done to the Prague agenda. Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of this crisis, NATO agreed to assume command of the ISAF peacekeeping operation in Afghanistan, the first out-of-area operation in the history of the alliance. Even the compulsively recalcitrant French, despite their bitter quarrel with the United States at the time, may have supported this decision out of a desire to avoid doing too much long-term damage to NATO.
Afghanistan and the NRF have dominated the NATO agenda ever since. Under persistent U.S. prodding, the allies have agreed to the step-by-step expansion of the ISAF peacekeeping force from Kabul into the provinces, most recently into the former Taliban heartland of southern Afghanistan, where NATO peacekeeping operations are being seriously tested. Although increasing Taliban attacks have made ISAF peacemaking operations highly dangerous, the allies have steadfastly resisted U.S. efforts to get them involved in U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom counterterrorism operations, which would put their forces even more seriously in harm’s way. Meanwhile, progress in developing the NRF, which is due to become fully operational in October 2006, has been hampered by the continuing inability of European allies to devote the resources required to acquire key logistical capabilities, such as strategic lift, or to train and equip sufficient numbers of combat troops to U.S. standards. Instead, in something of a paradox, the NRF, which was originally conceptualized as the antidote to a two-tiered alliance, has come to be used for lower-end purposes, as in the Kashmir relief operation, because its units are available for rotational call-up.