The NATO alliance continues to grapples with fallout from the coronavirus pandemic both in Europe and its missions elsewhere. Countries hard-hit by the Coronavvirus or “”Chinavirus”” as it is called by the Trump Administration, includes Italy, France, and Spain; all are NATO members.
“As of 25 March 2020, three staff members at NATO Headquarters have tested positive for COVID-19. One has fully recovered and is back at work, and the other two are recovering. Two contractors have also tested positive,” NATO said in a statement posted online.
NATO member Macedonia is using NATO’s Next-Generation Incident Command System (NICS) to coordinate its Coronavirus response. NATO also plans to scale back wargames planned for this summer over concerns regarding the epidemic. Four members of the NATO mission in Afghanistan have tested positive for the virus.
Yet, despite the impact of the Wuhan Flu, NATO remains committed to its defense priorities on both flanks. These include both the “Eastern Flank”, a euphemism for the Russian Federation, and a “Southern Flank”, a catch-all term that has meant emerging threats in the Middle East and North Africa. The term is often used to include Afghanistan where NATO has operated since the United States under the terms of Article 5 of the NATO Treaty asked for help from NATO member states.
Last week NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg hosted a virtual press conference to showcase increased defense spending among NATO member states.The event was overshadowed by concerns about the coronavirus which also precluded the attendance of reporters.
Stoltenberg offered upbeat news about NATO defense spending. According to the new numbers, in 2019 the United States expenditure regarding defence amounted to 3.42% of GDP, up from 3.3%.
U.S. President Donald Trump has harangued allies, and Germany in particular, over perceived under-spending on defence, effectively threatening to pull America out of the alliance in 2018. The U.S. accounts for 70% of defence expenditure by NATO’s 29 nations.
During NATO’s 2014 Wales summit, NATO members pledged to spend at least 2% of GDP on defense by 2024. The new report has revealed that only eight European countries — Bulgaria, Estonia, Greece, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and the U.K. — had achieved the target last year.
The report revealed that Europe is moving closer to NATO’s 2% spending goal, with European member countries and Canada increasing to 1.57% GDP on average in 2019 from 1.52% in 2018, the alliance said in its annual report. Meanwhile, Germany’s defence expenditure rose to 1.38% GDP last year from 1.24%.
The increase in defense spending is meant to prove to Russia that NATO is resolved to deal with threats that could emerge from the East. Yet, in his remarks last week, Stoltenberg also took the time to paint a clear path forward for NATO in Afghanistan.
NATO is very concerned the current political turmoil in the country coupled with the coronavirus, could hamper efforts to carry out intra-Afghan peace talks with the Taliban.
“I was in Kabul a couple of weeks ago when the deal was signed, and to make sure the deal is implemented, we need a united Afghan government that can be a part of a negotiated political process,” the NATO chief said.
“We urge all political forces in Afghanistan to find an inclusive solution and to make sure that they can implement the agreement with the Taliban,” Stoltenberg said.
Stoltenberg’s comments were echoed by U.S. reconciliation envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who urged Kabul to move ahead with a promised prisoner swap, citing the coronavirus pandemic as the main reason an agreement is needed quickly.
As thousands of American and NATO troops are scheduled to leave in the next few months, coronavirus quarantine procedures are complicating those efforts. Four NATO soldiers in Afghanistan have tested positive for the Coronavirus.
The Trump Administration has continued its plans for a drawdown as part of its peace deal with the Taliban. However, European diplomats say they are not so sure if there won’t be a potential slowdown of the troop movements over coronavirus fears.