President Barack Obama’s decision to make Afghanistan a “major non-NATO U.S. ally” will make it easier to provide military assistance to that impoverished, unstable and war-torn nation. But it also raises America’s stake in the survival of Afghanistan’s weak government as it struggles to repel the Taliban.
Drawing on authority first granted by Congress to President George H.W. Bush, President Obama gave a high profile to Afghanistan’s elevation to “major ally” by sending Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Kabul to make the announcement last weekend. She met in the gardens of the presidential palace with Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Saturday before accompanying him to a donors’ conference in Tokyo, where nations pledged $16 billion in financial aid beginning after NATO and U.S. combat forces withdraw from Afghanistan over the next two years.
The withdrawal policy, established by President Obama, satisfies neither those who want to get out of Afghanistan earlier nor those who think it comes too soon and will leave the country ripe for civil war with a Taliban backed by Pakistan.
As if answering these critics, Secretary Clinton said, “We’re not even imagining abandoning Afghanistan.” Unless the dwindling NATO presence can break the Taliban resistance and bring it to terms in coming months, however, either the president’s withdrawal deadline will change or we’ll face the fall of a major ally.
Afghanistan’s new status is hardly unique. Over the past 23 years 14 other nations have been awarded a similar “major non-NATO ally” designation. Among them are Mideast nations, including Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Kuwait and Bahrain; major Asia-Pacific region allies, including Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand and the Philippines; and even Argentina. Pakistan joined the club in 2005.
But as the list shows, the other enjoying major, non-NATO ally status — even Egypt and Pakistan — have not been in the midst of a civil war with an uncertain outcome.
Ideally, to be designated a major ally of the United States, a nation should be able to offer a partnership. Afghanistan’s ability to meet this obligation has yet to be established.
By extending such status to Afghanistan, Mr. Obama has taken on another side of the obligation: defending the major ally’s common interests with the United States.
It will be a serious challenge for him — or any White House successor — to fulfill that duty to a shaky government locked in a struggle for survival.