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NATO's Future Role Debated

NATO's role has changed dramatically since the end of the Cold War and some say the 26-member grouping should eventually evolve into a global security alliance. For now, however, NATO's main challenge in maintaining its cohesion and effectiveness lies in Afghanistan. VOA's Bill Rodgers reports on the discussion over NATO's future.

From fighting in Afghanistan, to maintaining peace and stability in Kosovo, NATO's mission has changed dramatically since it was founded in 1949 to defend Western Europe against Soviet expansion.

Now, some are calling for NATO to evolve into a global security alliance by allowing Australia, Japan, and other countries to become members and contribute forces.

Democratic Congressman Tom Lantos, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, made the suggestion at a recent hearing. "What, except the word Atlantic, prevents Australia, with flexibility on the part of NATO, to become a member of a renamed North Atlantic Treaty Organization? Would it not make the supreme allied commander feel more comfortable about upcoming global crises if he would have a NATO of a global reach?"

NATO's Supreme Allied Commander, General Bantz Craddock, testified at the committee hearing. He agreed on the benefits of expansion, but also warned of obstacles. "From a perspective of planning and preparing at my headquarters we are looking at the ability to expand. Is that a first step to a global enlargement? I don't know. That will, obviously, be a political decision. But I think it is indeed a recognition that the level of ambition is significant and, quite frankly, it is not matched by the political will of the nations to meet that level of ambition and we must continue to push on our member nations to provide that capability."

And it is in Afghanistan that the issue of NATO member capability is paramount. An international force of some 40,000 soldiers is in Afghanistan, with most of the troops coming from NATO's 26 members. But some member nations -- such as Germany and Spain -- have restrictions, known as caveats, on how their forces are used.

NATO expert Stephen Larrabee, Rand Corporation, says, "It is a challenge and a threat to cohesion. That is why it is essential, in my view, over the long-term that these caveats are reduced and eliminated if possible, otherwise the cohesion of the alliance will definitely be affected and so will its effectiveness."

Discussions have taken place over the caveats and some progress has been made. But as suicide bombings and other attacks continue, some member nations are questioning their future participation in the Afghanistan mission.

Analyst Larrabee believes NATO's future is at stake in Afghanistan. "We seem to be in a stalemate and a stalemate is not good enough. We will have to be able to show, if NATO has a real future, that it is able to, in fact, meet these challenges not just be engaged in a stalemate."

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said the mission in Afghanistan will not be extended beyond 2009 without a consensus in his country and parliament. The comment reflects the difficulties NATO faces in maintaining cohesion as its role evolves in meeting 21st century challenges.