The Eastern Front

The weakest link in the chain?

Although the NATO summit in the Baltic state of Estonia dealt with many issues, the focus of the meeting was indubitably Afghanistan and the need for more troops in order to counter a Taliban resurgence. Nevertheless, for many observers this summit seemed to not have accomplished very much. Indeed, for some the highlight of the gathering was when a big cake was brought out in honour of French president Jacques Chirac's 70th birthday.

Throughout Central and Eastern Europe, online and television news carried only brief mention of the summit, while the printed press relegated the news to the back pages. Most people were unaware of it, and of those who may have had some sort of knowledge of the summit, they didn't seem to really care much about it anyway. Hence, news of the NATO summit quickly and quietly went through the mainstream media, and most probably by next week the whole event will have been forgotten.

On the other hand, for government officials, policy makers, and pundits alike the NATO summit in Estonia was of extreme importance. While in many parts of the west questions have been raised as to the continued existence of the military alliance, the former communist states of Central and Eastern Europe seem to be among its most active promoters.

In many ways, this enthusiasm for NATO is mostly for show, as governments within the region use their commitment to the military alliance as a way to somehow present themselves in a better light to its more powerful partners, namely the US. The US, in turn, often relies on the co-operation of its smaller allies in the east in order to further its agenda and exert some sort of diplomatic pressure on its more reluctant allies, namely Germany and France.

Yet the contribution that the eastern allies can make to NATO is token at best. For example, while Poland promised a sizable force to help reinforce the NATO mission in Afghanistan, this force isn't due until February of next year. Considering that this force is already needed and that when they arrive it will already be the middle of winter, this contribution by Poland is seen by many as an almost empty gesture.

Still, this gesture is better than nothing, or at least a lot more than what others can provide. For instance, Hungary sent over a force of one thousand non-combat troops, and this only after it had first transferred its troops from Iraq. While news reports from Iraq were occasionally forthcoming, there has been almost no news coming from Afghanistan. This lack of news, which runs along the lines that no news is good news, shows how risky and unpopular this small troop deployment is among the general public.

What is interesting to note, is that although the countries of Central and Eastern Europe are often at odds with one another -- politically, socially, and economically -- there appears to be a unified acceptance of the need to bring in the states from the former Yugoslavia into the military alliance. For one, it would provide an additional source of troops for places like Afghanistan where NATO has been having trouble convincing existing members to send more soldiers.

Identity crisis

This unity on certain issues, however, still can't hide the discord which exists. Hungary, for instance, refused to increase their troop numbers, this despite the fact that they are deployed in the south where much of the fighting is going on. Poland, meanwhile, which agreed to send a sizable force early next year, sees itself as a loyal ally and an example to others in the region.

In the end, the failure to significantly increase the numbers of NATO troops in Afghanistan all comes down to an identity crisis. As far as the countries from Central and Eastern Europe are concerned, the purpose of NATO when they joined was not to send troops to Afghanistan, but as a means to guarantee peace and stability within their own region. After the fall of communism, there was the fear among many that the ghosts of the past would come to haunt them. In some cases, as in Yugoslavia, such fears were justified; in others, as with the breakup of Czechoslovakia, it wasn't. Meanwhile, for the Baltic states NATO provided a security guarantee not from one another, but from a resurgent Russia.

While the eastern wing of NATO saw the military alliance as a means to guarantee peace and security in the east of Europe, many in the west continued to ponder the organisation's role in the post Cold War world. As a result, this identity crisis has led some in the former East Bloc to become disillusioned with the alliance. The continued use of the "Eastern Front" as a cheap source of manpower and as a counterweight to such countries as France and Germany has only reinforced such feelings of disillusionment.

Still, the US has been able to count on the region in order to support its military adventures abroad through the skillful use of concessions. Iraq (which isn't even a NATO mission) is a prime example of how such a "coalition of the billing" can be forged. One big prize which the various countries of Central and Eastern Europe have been seeking from the US is the revocation of visa requirements for travel to the US. Governments from the region are so desperate to obtain this concession that they are willing to send their countries to war for it.

Even so, this carrot has been dangling in front of the leaders from Central and Eastern Europe for so long now that it has begun to lose its appeal. This can be seen with the US coalition in Iraq, in where most of the countries involved have decided to cut their losses. Afghanistan, therefore, will be no different: unless the US delivers on some of the promises it has made, and unless NATO is able to overcome its identity crisis and create for itself a clearly defined mandate, then the weak links in the alliance will eventually break. (John Horvath)