This story originally appeared in UCLA Today, a discontinued publication.

Wesley Clark: Can NATO survive Afghanistan?

Twenty years after the Berlin Wall fell and NATO's raison d'être was thrown into question, former NATO chief and retired U.S. Gen. Wesley Clark reflected on how the organization's tumultuous existence in the '90s reflects on its precarious position in Afghanistan today.
Wesley Clark. Photo by Todd Cheney/UCLA Photo.
Wesley Clark. Photo by Todd Cheney/UCLA Photo.
Clark, a senior fellow at UCLA's Burkle Center for International Relations, opened the afternoon session for the center's Nov. 6 conference, "1989: Assessing the Collapse of Communism Twenty Years Later."
NATO's founding purpose was to counter the U.S.S.R, so after the Soviet Union collapsed, NATO became an anachronism, Clark said. Member nations played tug-of-war for years over whether to expand by admitting other countries, and whether the ostensibly peace-keeping organization could go on the offensive in places like Yugoslavia, Kosovo and Albania to prevent genocide, Clark said. Expanding NATO was also politically sensitive because Russia interpreted it as a threat, Clark added. But after a contentious internal struggle, NATO countries agreed to admit new members and expand the group's peace-keeping role, he said.
Today, said Clark, the question is, "Can NATO survive a less-than-optimal outcome in Afghanistan?"
"In the case of Kosovo, we won a 78-day air campaign. We lost not a single allied soldier," saved 1.5 million Albanians and forced Slobodan Milosevic from power, Clark observed. "It was an incredible success — and NATO almost tore itself apart in finger pointing and blame."
But despite the grim prognosis that parallel suggests for NATO in Afghanistan, the agency will survive and thrive, predicted Clark, the former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, Europe.
"NATO's got some big challenges ahead, but don't write it off," Clark said. "There is nothing stronger than when nations pledge, one to another, that an attack on one is an attack on all. … That's the secret of NATO's survival. … It's going to be a powerful force in 21st century Europe, trans-Atlantic relations and in the world."
NATO's constant struggle has been divvying up costs and responsibilities, or "burden sharing," between its member nations, Clark said. From its founding, NATO members have fought over whether each have provided their fair share and sent enough troops.
"You'll see it again when Barack Obama announces more troops for Afghanistan," Clark said, affirming his belief that U.S. President Barack Obama will decide to increase troop levels.
NATO and the U.S. can still learn lessons from Cold War-era battles, too, Clark said, drawing parallels between Vietnam and Afghanistan, where he said the U.S. should find a way out quickly.
"One: the more troops you send, the more casualties you can take. The more casualties you take, the less public support you get," Clark said. In both Vietnam and Afghanistan, he continued, the enemy headquarters are in different countries than where the wars are being fought, further draining public support.
The difficulty of winning "hearts and minds" in Afghanistan is also similar to the problem in Vietnam: Westerners don't speak the language or know the culture.
"It was easy for us to win hearts and minds of the Germans [after World War II] – 25 percent of the U.S. population is German," Clark said. "But we don't speak Pashto or Dari. We can't tell friend from foe. We're waving at them and they're probably giving us the finger, and we don't even know it. … We're like invaders from outer space … People are afraid when you don't look like they look and don't come from the same place … It's human nature."
Though he didn't draw a direct parallel between the Cold War and the War on Terror, Clark's remarks on the abrupt end of the Cold War cast a hopeful light on modern battles.
"It was a different era. The Soviets, they were the enemy … it was never to be resolved in our lifetimes," he said. "Suddenly in 1989, in the twinkling of an eye, it was over. … The Berlin Wall fell, Eastern Europe was free, two years later the Soviet Union disintegrated. It was the year of miracles."
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