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

For many NATO allies, the pullout from Afghanistan seemed to be yet another U.S. attempt to directly command its own assets alongside those of NATO. So it reinforced the tendency of several European nations to place caveats on the use of their forces. For example, both Germany and Norway will not allow their deployed forces to go into southern Afghanistan, where the most active military action is seen. In this way, even with 41,000 troops on the ground (including national contingent commands), ISAF may be NATO's largest operational force, equivalent to about four divisions, but in most military engagements it is able to fight effectively at no more than the battalion level. ISAF's ability to offer either a coherent force or a major fighting capability is severely hampered.

Yet, to a certain extent, size in itself is not the priority problem. Afghanistan has shown the difficulties this Cold War relic has when facing modern warfare, no matter the troop levels. Since the Taliban operates in small units, they cannot necessarily be beaten by overwhelming force. And since hearts and minds are key, reconstruction should be at the strategic fore. The Taliban no doubt respects opposition forces, especially their firepower, but has calculated that NATO has little will or capacity to escalate. It is also quite clear to the Taliban that NATO sees the theater of operations as strictly within Afghanistan rather than lying across borders, particularly the border with Pakistan. This is not to suggest ISAF should be taking military action in Pakistan, but rather that the Taliban clearly doesn't see the border as a barrier to its own operations. In fact, it sees no barriers at all: It is simply not deterred. Furthermore, the Taliban understands perfectly well that the real aim is not to win the land but the people in it-something NATO has patently failed to figure out for itself. So the Taliban maintains its attacks on ISAF, preferably in areas with lots of civilians. They can then claim to protect the people from NATO and government forces when the alliance looks to retaliate. This strategy is likely to succeed in capturing the will of the people. If ISAF loses the people it has lost the conflict. Yet, by its lackluster military performance and inadequate state-building efforts, NATO and its allies in Afghanistan do not appear to be providing a convincing alternative to armed action.

Plus, much of the force expansion in Afghanistan was led by Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), each originally operating separately under the national authority of the contributing member state. When NATO expanded its operations to the whole of Afghanistan, the military elements of the PRTs came under ISAF command, but not the civilian elements. As such, PRTs were essential, but lacked coordination-and so it remains. Again, a lack of coherent command and control rears its ugly head. The necessity of PRTs is rooted in the reality of modern operations, which demand a civilian reconstruction capacity on par with, and often greater than, the military capacity. Such operations commence with military force, which, if successful, then serves as a security environment that must be sustained for the reconstruction of societies, infrastructure, economies and everything necessary to turn a conflict-ridden zone into a functioning state; one that lives at peace internally and with its neighbors. NATO does not have this ability; it is only a military alliance. So it was left to the individual nations to provide the civilian elements, but without central coordination with one another, with other humanitarian and developmental agencies deployed in Afghanistan, or with NATO, showing once again the limits of the alliance.


Strategic Confusion

ABOVE ALL else is the issue of coherence, both within and outside the theater. It is crucial to the success of a body like ISAF. Opponents must perceive such a force as credible, backed by the political will to act, able to find and destroy the targets that matter to the opponent, and, should the opponent persist, to possess the will and capacity to escalate. A force with these characteristics will not succeed unless it is committed to achieving military goals that are part of a strategy directed from a single source and calibrated to the actual circumstances in the theater of operations. The strategy must show and demonstrate to the opposing force and, in particular, to the people amongst whom the war takes place that an alternative to violence is available and to their advantage.

Unfortunately, very few of these basic attributes are true to ISAF. On the ground, the Taliban has repeatedly encountered excellent NATO fighting forces, which, having won particular engagements, ultimately fail due to an inability to capitalize on gains. NATO's entry into Afghanistan was hobbled from the start, which is why the Taliban became resurgent. This stems from a lack of agreed purpose, fueled by political disagreements far away from Afghanistan. In order to succeed in a war amongst the people-the current paradigm of war-both military and civilian operations must be consistent with each other in the pursuit of a single, agreed-upon aim. Above all, ISAF's creation required unified political will and a lot of money. But from the start, strategic confusion was embedded. For whilst there was general agreement to act, there was never full agreement on the true aim of the operation. Was the goal to help the United States defeat the Taliban or was it to assist the Afghan government in reconstruction and development? The question still remains unanswered. The strategic debate in NATO headquarters, such as it is and has been, is more about the availability and use of force rather than the end to be achieved. Almost all the discussions have focused on the caveats states have placed on the use of their troops. This suggests that if these restrictions were removed, ISAF would be magically transformed, and the conflict could be rapidly and efficiently won. Such thinking is unrealistic. The situation requires more: Coherent logic, direction, and command and control arrangements such that military successes are coordinated with, and in support of, appropriate reconstruction efforts.


Salvaging the Alliance

TO AVERT failure and return the power of deterrence to the alliance, political trust must be reestablished and five fundamental requirements fulfilled. First and foremost, all the allies must break out of their national fiefdoms, whether it be the Europeans and their caveats or the Americans keeping their forces under separate command. No force can succeed under such circumstances. Second, NATO must link its use of force at strategic and theater levels with other levers of power. There must be a coherent and integrated plan, incorporating all of the international efforts under way, with agreed chains of command shared between organizations. If NATO persists in using force alone, and in isolation from other efforts, it cannot attain any strategic aim. Third, Europeans must accept Afghanistan and Iraq as realities that they must actively and fully contribute to resolving, even if they were created by the Bush Administration. More generally, Europeans must decide to use force as a concept rather than focus upon generating-or not generating-capabilities. Fourth, the United States must begin to deal more equally with its allies: It must become part of the alliance rather than just trying to use it for its own foreign-policy purposes. To this end, the United States must learn that it can no longer dictate policy by asserting supremacy. Its allies simply will not follow. Fifth and finally, NATO must answer the basic question posed at the start of this essay: Is it a military alliance that enters political situations or a political alliance that undertakes military operations? If it is the former, then NATO must forge a partnership with the EU, which can offer or buy a civilian capability in any situation. Moreover, keeping in mind there is only one set of military forces amongst the NATO nations, most of which are also EU members, an alliance with the EU may enable better streamlining of European military capabilities rather than double-marking them for the two organizations. However, if the answer is the latter, then alliance members must start on a long process of reconciliation and reorganization to regain the power of deterrence. But Afghanistan may be lost by then.


Ilana Bet-El is a Brussels-based strategic advisor and writer. Rupert Smith is the former NATO Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe and author of The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World (Vintage, 2008).

Essay Types: Essay