National Security

Who Lost Europe?

How the standoff in Ukraine could split NATO and kill the Asia pivot.

Even if the United States succeeds in its last-ditch effort to prevent Russia's annexation of Crimea, the Ukrainian crisis will have long-lasting reverberations for U.S. foreign policy. For the past five years, the Obama administration's focus has been on limiting overseas commitments while shifting resources from Europe and the Middle East to Asia. The current standoff with Moscow will almost certainly make that harder. In addition to further eroding the U.S.-Russian relationship, it will force Washington to take European security more seriously, reduce the prospects for a negotiated outcome in Syria, and limit the scope and ambitions of Washington's Asia rebalance.

The most direct impact of the current standoff will be on Washington's relationship with Moscow. Although the U.S.-Russia "reset" was a signal achievement of Obama's first term, bilateral relations have cooled significantly in recent years. With tension mounting over Russia's support for Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, crackdown on dissent and gay rights at home, and decision to grant asylum to NSA leaker Edward Snowden, the Obama administration made a conscious decision to de-prioritize relations with Moscow, cancelling a September 2013 summit and refusing to send a high-level government delegation to the Sochi Olympics.

Nevertheless, Washington attempted to preserve limited cooperation in order to broker an end to the Syrian civil war and roll back Iran's nuclear program. Even before the crisis in Ukraine, it was becoming clear that a second round of Syria talks in Geneva were going nowhere, and that the fate of an Iranian nuclear deal would depend on direct contacts between Washington and Tehran. Coupled with the drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan (a priority area for U.S.-Russian cooperation during the reset), these developments were already reducing Washington's interest in partnership with Moscow. With its need for Russian cooperation significantly reduced, the invasion of Ukraine sets the stage for the U.S. to further disengage, and to pursue a harder line toward Moscow, likely for several years.

But it's not just relations with the Kremlin that will be affected. America's European allies have frequently accused the Obama administration of taking Europe for granted. To the extent that these criticisms are justified, they reflected a belief within the administration that European security -- Washington's principal foreign policy concern for the past century -- had been solved and that it was time for Europe to become a producer, rather than a consumer, of security. Unfortunately, the Ukrainian crisis has called that assumption into question.

At least until President Vladimir Putin exits the Kremlin for good, Washington is going to have to focus more on sustaining its NATO alliance commitments and providing reassurance to vulnerable states on Europe's periphery, even if doing so undermines the Obama administration's desire to simultaneously slash defense spending and divert resources from Europe to Asia. Washington has already taken some short-term, mostly symbolic measures to reassure its allies, including holding Article 4 consultations within NATO (invoked when a member state believes its security or independence is threatened) and dispatching additional fighter jets to the Baltic states and personnel to Poland. In the wake of the current crisis, the United States may also need to reconsider its 2012 decision to withdraw two full brigade combat teams from Europe as a cost-saving measure, and possibly consider the re-deployment of forces from traditional bases in Germany to NATO's eastern flank. Similarly, the Ukraine crisis will strengthen opposition on Capitol Hill to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's plan to impose cost savings on the Pentagon by slashing the size of U.S. land forces following their withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Russian aggression against Ukraine will also re-open the perennial debate about NATO expansion. NATO's 2008 Bucharest summit, which first promised Georgia a path into the alliance -- and factored into Russia's decision to invade South Ossetia in 2008 -- made a similar commitment to Ukraine, then led by the pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko. Though Yanukovych withdrew Kyiv's application to NATO in 2010, Ukraine's recent upheaval is sure to put this issue back on the table.

Depending on the outcome of the scheduled May 25 election, Ukraine's new government may well seek a renewed path into NATO -- especially if Russia attempts to annex Crimea, removing more than one million ethnic Russians from Ukraine's electorate and further stoking anti-Russian sentiment elsewhere. Ukrainian NATO membership would likely provoke Moscow into a larger scale use of force, which in turn could lead to a rupture within NATO if allies proved reluctant to uphold the alliance's mutual security commitment. Starting now, Washington will need to handle this issue with extraordinary strategic foresight, balancing Ukrainians' right to choose their own future with recognition that a precipitous move toward NATO could prove disastrous.

Of course, the implications of the Ukrainian crisis extend beyond Europe. Though the Geneva talks were already on the road to failure, the invasion of Crimea likely eliminates the possibility that the international community will be able to impose a solution on Syria. Assad reportedly believes the Ukrainian crisis gives him a window to pursue an outright military victory. Since directly arming Syria's fractious rebels still risks empowering a range of extremist, anti-Western groups, Washington's options are narrowing, and it may soon have to resign itself to the prospect of Assad continuing to preside over a brutalized, unstable Syria.

Meanwhile, the administration's Pacific ambitions may also be stymied. The corollary to Obama's belief that European security had been solved was the decision to rebalance U.S. resources to Asia. The factors driving the rebalance, including Asia's economic dynamism and the potential for a rising China to precipitate conflicts with neighbors, will not change. Nevertheless, Washington's ability to give substance to its rebalance strategy will be limited by the need to take European security more seriously.

Within Asia, Washington's challenge will be to reassure nervous allies like Japan and the Philippines that the Ukrainian crisis does not imply a weakening commitment to the principle of territorial integrity. It will also have to prevent an increasingly isolated, paranoid Russia from pursuing a strategic alignment with China. Fortunately, Russia's disregard for Ukrainian sovereignty plays poorly in Beijing, and even a Russia increasingly alienated from the West will be reluctant to become China's junior partner. Japan, meanwhile, remains eager to deepen cooperation with Russia, but recognizes that Moscow's actions in Ukraine make that prospect more remote. As a result, Asia may be the only part of the world where U.S. and Russian interests will continue on largely parallel tracks, even if active cooperation is now unlikely. At best, Washington can provide quiet support for the efforts of Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and others to deepen economic and security ties with Russia, which remain in the longer term U.S. interest regardless of developments in Ukraine. At worst, it will struggle to promote a stable, prosperous Asia as it copes with a wider conflict on the borders of Europe.

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The Missing Piece in Ensuring Afghanistan’s Peace

Much has gone right in Afghanistan. It’s more secure, stable, and even optimistic. But there's one final tweak needed before America says goodbye.

So now the United States approaches the endgame -- long predicted -- in Afghanistan.

While it is tempting at times to simply walk away, doing so serves no geopolitically sensible purpose, and indeed may be snatching certain defeat from the jaws of a very possible success.

All is not lost: The United States still has a better-than-even chance of a successful outcome in Afghanistan. That is to say, Washington should execute its strategy and move forward -- not take counsel of its fears and frustrations to abruptly depart.

The security situation and the upcoming elections have been a focus of the attendant political process. Both are, of course, important. But the real key to whether the United States succeeds will be the health of the Afghan economy and its long-term prospects. To be effective, Washington should emphasize developing growth and stability through private-public partnerships.

But what does success look like, exactly? Recognizable security throughout most of the populated areas of the country, with a low-grade insurgency rumbling around parts of the south and east; a roughly credible democratic political process, albeit with some corruption and malfeasance; a functioning economy with the possibility of improvement based on minerals; improved medical and educational benefits; and enhanced rights for women and children throughout most of the urban areas. Not perfect, but vastly better than a 14th-century existence under the Taliban.

Why are the odds better than even? Despite all the challenges, much has gone right in Afghanistan -- in terms of security, politics, economics, and culture.

In the security sector, more than 50 nations have contributed troops over the past decade, and a principal focus has been the build-up of 350,000 Afghan police and security, which have the approval of more than 70 percent of the population according to recent surveys. Today, the Afghan National Security Forces are fully responsible for ensuring security throughout the nation's 34 provinces, conducting patrols along the borders, and flying their own aircraft. They are holding territories that the Taliban deeply desire to occupy, including the spiritual heartland of the Taliban movement in the south and the rugged mountainous east. Despite a certain amount of Sturm und Drang, the Baseline Security Agreement (BSA) will almost certainly be signed in the next few months (by Afghan President Hamid Karzai's successor), and somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 troops from the NATO-led coalition will likely remain to train, mentor, and monitor the Afghan forces. In all, it is a sustainable and positive outcome, assuming that the 50 or so contributing nations continue the some $4 billion in annual funding -- a bargain compared to keeping 150,000 allied troops there, which cost upward of $100 billion a year.

Politically, Afghanistan seems on track for a reasonably successful election in April. There is a vibrant campaign in progress: Many views and ethnicities are on offer among the candidates, security planning is moving apace, and Karzai seems content to hand power peacefully to an elected successor. While there will be both security and corruption challenges to overcome, at this stage most observers feel that Afghanistan will have the first handover between elected leaders in its history this spring.

In terms of culture, there is enormous progress since the Taliban days -- 9 million children are in school (4 million of them girls); life expectancy is climbing rapidly; medical care is available to five times more people; 17 million cell phones; improved rights for women; and the sense of optimism among the population is higher in Afghanistan than in many Western countries (over the past few years, a stunning 57 percent of Afghans say their country is "headed in the right direction.")

But what about the economy?

While growth has been fairly high over the past decade, averaging over 8 percent annually and over 12 percent in 2012, it is largely dependent on outside economic aid. The narcotic sector is a big part of the overall economy (Afghanistan is the world's largest producer of poppy, opium, and heroin). Worst of all, it is the NATO-led coalition war machine that consumes huge amounts of good and services. As the NATO forces redeploy to their home nations, falling 90 percent from the peak in terms of boots on the ground, the economy will be hit with a body blow.

The good news is that longer-term prospects offer some hope, especially in extractive industries. The Ministry of Mines and Petroleum continues to work toward arrangements to reap the benefits of as much as $3 trillion worth of valuable minerals -- iron, copper, nickel, cobalt, rare earths, and lithium among them. Oil and gas show promise. Entrepreneurship is strong and growing, and the geographic location of Afghanistan along the Silk Road makes it a prospect as an inter-modal transport and shipping hub. Agribusiness is expanding, as is the export of cashmere, carpets, and jewelry.

The key for the international community in the economic sphere is to work with the Afghans to formulate a "bridge strategy" to get the economy from its dependence on outside assistance and military activity to a more legitimate and sustainable underpinning. The keys to such an approach are:

1. Draft an agreed-upon plan between the Afghan government and the international community -- the equivalent of the BSA in the economic sphere. This cannot be done on the military side, but should instead be led by the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan and its special representative, Ambassador Jan Kubis.

2. Write a strategy to strengthen indigenous industries (agriculture, mining, hydrocarbons, construction) led by the development community, i.e. U.S. Agency for International Development and their counterparts.

3. Harness the power of private-public partnerships, using models like the U.S. Task Force for Business and Stability Operations, an innovative group resourced by the U.S. Department of Defense but driven by its connections to private sector actors. Bringing private sector analysts to Afghanistan and showing them the potential for growth (and profitability, of course), will create business opportunities.

4. Identify sources of investment in the Afghan diaspora and from capital flows willing to take a higher level of risk with the potential for higher return (venture capital, rich sovereign wealth funds, hydrocarbon and mining companies).

5. Energize a strategic communications plan to let people know of both the risk and the opportunity in Afghanistan. Like other parts of the world that emerged from turmoil (Colombia, the Balkans, to name a few), there are opportunities for those willing to accept the risk. More than 70 percent of Afghans feel their economic circumstances have improved over the past decade: Build on that narrative.

None of this will be easy, of course. The security, political, and cultural gains remain at risk. But the chances of bringing home a limited but sustainable level of stability to Afghanistan ultimately rest on how the economy unfolds -- and that will take international, interagency, and private-public collaboration, as well as strategic communications writ large, to succeed.