As I write this I am en route to Lisbon, Portugal, courtesy of the Atlantic Council for which I am attending the NATO summit as part of their Young Atlanticist Network.

The Lisbon summit is shaping up to be one of the most important NATO meetings in many years.  For one,  NATO is at a turning point in Afghanistan. There are some 100,000 American troops and 50,000 troops from NATO countries on the ground.   In Lisbon this week,  President Obama is set to unveil a new Afghan strategy that pushes away from the July 2011 drawdown date to a plan that foresees American troops in Afghanistan until at least 2014. It remains unclear, however, how structured the July 2011 to 2014 draw down will be, what forces will remain, for how long and for what purpose?  In the meantime, a number of NATO members are growing weary of this decade long war.  Canada and The Netherlands, for example, are set to withdraw combat troops next year.

Beyond Afghanistan, the NATO summit is an opportunity for NATO to engage in a moment of self-reflection about its goals and purpose. NATO has not updated its strategic guidance in over a decade, and for the past year a group of experts led by Madeline Albright has worked on a new strategic guidance for “NATO in 2020” and beyond.  Most press reports suggest that the draft guidance will strongly resemble the final version to which NATO heads of state will agree this week.   That would mean a new focus on non-conventional threats like cyber warfare; a ballistic missile defense system to deter a potential attack from Iran; and a new focus on looking beyond the North Atlantic to forge new strategic partnerships with emerging powers.

Throughout the week, I will be given fairly intimate access to newsmakers who will be participating in a meetings arranged by the Atlantic Council.  This includes people you know well – though I am not sure that the schedule is public yet so I will have to keep it a tease for now.   I’ll be posting regular updates throughout the week, and hope to parlay my access into a number of scooplets.

In the meantime, I owe it to readers to lay out some of my own biases going into this meeting. I’m strongly skeptical of both the current United States-led  counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan and of the underlying assumption that deploying large numbers of troops in Afghanistan is necessary for securing the American mainland.  On top of that, I am becoming increasingly unconvinced that the extraordinary financial costs of maintaining this posture—$100 billion last year alone – are a worthy investment for American national security.

That said, anyone who follows my writing knows that I have a deep and abiding fidelity to human rights and morality in international relations.  We – the United States, NATO, and the world—have an obligation to the Afghan people.  We cannot let the Taliban return. We must protect gains in human rights and women’s rights that have been made over the past ten years.  We have to invest in the long term economic development in Afghanistan and support international efforts to build Afghanistan’s governing institutions.

And finally, we must maintain this commitment long after Afghanistan fades from the headlines.  Unfortunately, the United States has a poor track record on that account.  It is worth noting that the same month that the United States announced that combat operations in Iraq were over, a $367 million United Nations appeal for Iraqi refugees and internally displaced was only 18% funded, with the United States contributing about $17 million. We have to do better than this.  We owe it to the Afghan people.

That said, I am entering this meeting with an open mind. I hope to have my biases challenged by both my fellow Young Atlanticists and by the many dignitaries, soldiers and diplomats with whom we will interact throughout the week.    This brings me to my last point.  Because of the access I’ve been given by the Atlantic Council, I will have the opportunity to put questions to some top officials in NATO and NATO member countries.    Please send me a note on twitter @undispatch or via email—undispatch-at-gmail-com  if you have any burning questions or provocations that you would like to see raised during the summit.  In the meantime, you should check out the Young Atlanticist blog and Facebook page for regular updates.

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