The Bell Tolls for NATO

The Bell Tolls for NATO

Mini Teaser: NATO is in a struggle for its life, and Afghanistan just may deliver the fatal blow.

by Author(s): Ilana Bet-ElRupert Smith

THE DAY the coalition forces invaded Iraq in March 2003, the conflict in Afghanistan became a sideshow for the United States. By default, it became the main event for NATO. Yet, the operation could be NATO's death knell, unless its members begin to deal with the organization and with each other more realistically. The road to victory in Afghanistan now runs through Brussels. It is time to decide whether this is a political alliance with a military purpose or a military alliance with a political cause. If the current scenario continues, NATO cannot succeed in Afghanistan, and therefore NATO cannot succeed anywhere; this is a clear and present danger.

Victory is thwarted by endemic problems within the alliance, with far deeper roots than the operation in Central Asia. Indeed, the sad situation of the NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan reflects the much harsher reality of NATO's lack of strategic direction, largely due to its fragmented political will. As a result, it has lost its most crucial historical asset, through which it won the Cold War: the power of deterrence. In this most recent adventure, the Taliban, having tested ISAF and finding it pliable, is not afraid, and there is a danger that other potential opponents will follow suit. All of this is a legacy of NATO's Cold War inception.


A Cold Shadow

THERE ARE two major issues, now tightly intertwined, at the heart of NATO's predicament: structural and political. On the structural side, the major problem is the very essence of the alliance as a Cold War creation; a historical moment of such overwhelming magnitude that it dispensed with the need to ever question the difference between military and political objectives. The Soviet nuclear threat provided an absolute reason for the existence of NATO, as an alliance with an absolute strategy of deterrence through a monopoly on overwhelming force. Underpinning this strategy was the unquestioned leadership of the United States, as both a victor of the Second World War and, far more significantly, as the majority owner of the nuclear capabilities that formed the deterrent. This leadership was bolstered by a command and control system of multinational consensus. The existence of a common enemy and the unrivaled power of the United States within the alliance fostered political unity.

The West's victory in the Cold War removed that overwhelming threat, and so nullified the strategy, or at least the need for it, whilst leaving the structure intact. The worry that after the thaw, America and the states of Europe had differing priorities and no overwhelming cause to bind them together was either ignored or suppressed, leading to an unaddressed political disparity on both sides of the Atlantic. This was largely due to the assumption that the Cold War's international architecture would remain intact and be extrapolated onto a world of peace: That the nature of both NATO membership and U.S. political and military leadership would stay relatively frozen, and U.S. and European goals for NATO would be identical. Reality unfolded somewhat differently.


Trouble in Paradise

IN THE wake of the Cold War, NATO and the EU began to expand. Newly independent, poor, politically active states were brought into the fold. NATO provided the security umbrella, and then opened its doors to membership for these former Soviet satellites. But the EU did much of the heavy lifting, as states were forced to conform to frameworks that transformed them economically and politically. It was through this very process that the EU became a massive trading bloc and economic superpower. And in the post-Cold War globalized world, common trade and economic interests are the keys to security-probably even more than missiles. So, U.S.-EU relations evolved as the true underpinning of transatlantic relations, not EU-NATO ones. But as the EU rose, transatlantic interests diverged. European states began questioning the actual use of military force, and the United States began seeking to expand NATO's operations in accordance with its foreign policy objectives; two very different views of the future.

All this confused the simple logic of NATO as an alliance that only uses force and makes decisions by consensus. The political union that once bridged the Atlantic was faltering. No longer were the European member states happy to go along with the unquestioned leadership the United States asserted. This rift emerged most clearly with the 1999 Kosovo campaign, in which the United States felt that because most of its assets were at stake, decision by consensus was unacceptable, but in which many Europeans no longer wished to be railroaded into a decision by an ally with overwhelming power. That which created NATO is now responsible for destroying it. The United States and Europe are faced with the difficulty of trying to coexist absent shared objectives in a structure ineffective for new wars.


A Little Less Conversation

YET, THE alliance has spent a lot of time trying to find common ground, searching for a new strategy and discussing "transformation", while also undertaking a number of military operations. But the alliance still has not properly restructured to deal with its current, mostly non-state enemies. Each operation further exposes the dire state of NATO. This is not merely a matter of technical capabilities or a new training program, but also of command and control. NATO's Cold War system has failed: It cannot produce a strategy. It enforces too many layers between the political decision-making nexus and the operation on the ground. So the commander manages rather than wields his force. Making matters worse, each force is made up of disparate national contingents with differing command relationships. And there remains no meaningful capability to use military force with other levers of power such as economic or legal ones, crucial elements in successfully fighting new wars.

These endemic problems and the transatlantic rift may have slowly healed or spurred a new reality for the alliance, but the catastrophe of September 11 changed all that. Instead, Afghanistan is the latest, and by far the worst, example of NATO's post-Cold War ailments.


One More Nail in the Coffin

NATO DECLARED the attacks on New York and Washington an attack "on all" under Article 5 of its charter. NATO members were prepared to defend the United States-but Washington ignored the alliance as a source of political and military strength. America took the offer of NATO's Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) and pretty much discarded the rest of the package. In the end, hubris aside, the United States needed NATO. But by then it was too late.

The United States first went into Afghanistan-alone-in October 2001, the start of Operation Enduring Freedom. It fought the Taliban and won back large swaths of the country, through deploying its military might and forging a string of unsavory but understandable alliances with the many Afghan warlords. All looked well. In the aftermath, in December 2001, the UN mandated an international force to assist in securing Kabul-thus ISAF was born. This was a coalition of the willing founded in the main by NATO nations, while the United States continued with Operation Enduring Freedom. Yet, just as it was at the point of possibly turning Afghanistan from a breeding ground for fanatics into an emerging state, the United States changed course and headed for Iraq. In August 2003, NATO took full responsibility for ISAF, while Operation Enduring Freedom continued under separate command. NATO was faced with its biggest ever operation, and it was not a glorious moment.

It rapidly became clear that NATO's presence in Kabul alone was not enough to secure peace since the whole country needed to be reconstructed. So in October 2003, it was decided that ISAF operations should be extended throughout the country. Indicative of the alliance's erosion of political will, it took a full year before this deployment was extended to the north, a further year until it was present in the west, and the full extension wasn't completed in the south and east until 2006. This allowed the Taliban and those associated with the ever-increasing opium production-now at a record high-to fill the security vacuum.

The slow pace of ISAF deployment was also a reflection of diverging EU and U.S. goals: a reluctance on behalf of many of the allies to be drawn into the continuing U.S. military conflict with Al-Qaeda along the border with Pakistan, a desire to avoid being fully embroiled with an ever-resurgent Taliban, a lack of capabilities to heighten the conflict and a general reluctance to use force. A recent survey showed that 64 percent of Europeans support contributing troops to international reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan-but only 30 percent feel their troops should combat the Taliban. On top of the existing post-Cold War tensions, the alliance had by then actively split over the Iraq War, with some members backing the United States and some backing France. This was aggravated by the popular public dislike of the Bush Administration all over Europe, making it politically impossible for most governments to back any U.S.-driven policy. And there should be no doubt that whilst Afghanistan, as opposed to Iraq, actually presented a substantive cause for all of NATO, it was portrayed in the media as a U.S. objective, thereby ensuring a lack of domestic support in many European member states.

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