The sun was brutal, the air thin and the dust thick along a trail through the mountain valley of Uzbin east of Kabul when the Taliban launched their ambush on Monday afternoon. Perhaps a hundred of the insurgents, well armed and well trained, attacked a NATO reconnaissance patrol made up of French infantry and commando units, a contingent of American Special Forces and elements of the Afghan Army. As the NATO forces scrambled for cover, the first Taliban salvos killed nine of the French and wounded another 21. American air cover was called in, but the Taliban managed to keep pouring fire into the French and American positions. Night came. The fighting went on. Not until the early hours of Tuesday morning could all the NATO soldiers be accounted for, whether living, wounded or dead. And before they could make it back to their base in the Surobi district, another French trooper died when the night-shrouded road caved in beneath his vehicle.
The history of grand alliances and global politics is rarely decided by a single skirmish, and the Uzbin Valley ambush by itself could hardly determine the fate of NATO. But it happened at a defining moment as day by day, hour by hour, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization finds itself under greater pressure to define its purpose and prove the worth of its far-flung missions from the Caucasus to the Hindu Kush.
As news reached NATO headquarters in Brussels of the French casualties—and of a separate coordinated suicide assault on a major American base in Afghanistan—the alliance foreign ministers, including American Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, had already gathered to confront another crisis that had shocked the Western alliance: Russia's ruthless move into Georgian territory to humiliate and possibly topple the NATO-supported (if not yet formally allied) government of President Mikheil Saakashvili.
Caught off guard in Georgia and directly under increasing fire in Afghanistan, NATO found itself scrambling to adopt a posture that might look strong and united. But the wording of the communiqué approved by its 26 members merely restated the obvious. They declared they "cannot continue with business as usual" in their dealings with Moscow, as if the Kremlin had any illusions on that score when its tanks rolled into previously uncontested Georgian territory.
The ever-frenetic French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, had brokered a truce between the Russians and Georgians days earlier. But on Tuesday he suddenly flew to Kabul to assess the aftermath of the attack on French troops, just months after he boosted France's commitment in Afghanistan to support the NATO mission with more troops—above the objections of many of his top generals and diplomats. "In its fight against terrorism, France has just been hit hard," he declared. "My determination is intact. France is resolved to pursue the fight against terrorism, for democracy and liberty."
Rice, whose global shuttling has picked up pace as the end of the Bush administration draws near, visited Tbilisi at the end of last week to reiterate demands for Moscow's withdrawal from Georgia in line with the terms of the earlier agreement. But the Russians, calling Washington's bluff as well as NATO's, showed every sign they were digging in, not pulling out. "The future of our relations will depend on the concrete actions Russia will take [to honor the ceasefire agreement] which is not happening at the moment," said NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. Past efforts at cooperation would be put on hold, he said. "The U.S. doesn't seek to isolate Russia," Rice told the press, "It's the behavior of Russia that's isolating Russia."
Premier Vladimir Putin has chosen his moment well, with American presidential authority weakened by the election season, and American forces bled dry in Iraq and, yes, Afghanistan. "Russia has sent a clear sphere-of-influence message: that it will not allow that sphere to be challenged. That's a message not just to countries such as Georgia and Ukraine, but also to putative allies such as Armenia and Belarus," said Andrew Wilson, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, a London-based think tank. Already would-be NATO-member Ukraine is cooling to the idea of joining the bloc, he said. "Ukrainians see NATO membership as a threat to a way of life that includes friendly relations with Russia," Wilson said.
On the roads full of refugees near the embattled Georgian town of Tskhinvali over the weekend, the mood already was changing from defiance toward Moscow to frustration with Saakashvili's government. "I know that nothing is left of my house and my barber shop," said Bezhan Dzhedlidze, who was fleeing on foot with his wife and family. "We are victims of a personal conflict between Saakashvili and Putin. That was their personal conflict and now thousands of us here have suffered."
The standoff also complicates Washington's ambitions to weaken Russian control over pipelines that send energy to Europe. Washington has so far managed to keep friendly relations with Russia while sending its special envoy for Eurasian energy to the Caucasus to lobby for pipeline routes that bypass Russia. With relations cooling further, such moves may become more delicate. "The original problem of Russia's grip on energy and economic issues in the area remains, regardless of what NATO does," said a U.S. official familiar with energy issues in the region.
Some in the Kremlin may see ironic justice in the current crisis. NATO is struggling to muster a more forceful response to Moscow even as its soldiers are dying in the Afghan killing fields where the Soviet Union cracked in the 1980s before shattering in the 1990s. Certainly it is a bit of cautionary history members of NATO should keep in mind.