The sovereign can no longer say, "You shall think as I do on pain of death;" but he says, "You are free to think differently from me, and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but if such be your determination, you are henceforth an alien among your people."

(Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835)

Monday, 22 March 2010

Some (different) thoughts on NATO - Part I

I’d like to address my friend’s comments on NATO, both by responding to some of his specific points and also by providing some thoughts of my own. For the time being, I have responded only on Afghanistan-related points. I’ll respond on the rest at a later time.

It simply is not true to say that more and more European Allies are pulling out from the mission in Afghanistan. The only Ally to have confirmed it will pull out is the Netherlands and that is as much down to internal political reasons as to the mission itself. Canada is planning to pull out in 2011 but that remains to be confirmed and, in any case, the reference was specifically to European Allies. Before the Dutch decision, last country to pull out was Switzerland in 2006 because ISAF’s expanded mandate was incompatible with its very specific form of neutrality.

In fact the opposite is true – not only are more nations (Europeans and others) joining ISAF, those already there have boosted their contingents quite considerably. It was at the Bucharest Summit in March 2008 that the clarion call went out for NATO to drastically expand its presence in Afghanistan. At that time ISAF numbered 50,000 troops of which 22,000 were American and approximately 25000 European. Today, ISAF numbers 88,000 and – far from pulling out – the European contribution has almost doubled over the past two years.

ISAF itself now comprises 44 nations with more soon to follow. The United States already did operate its own coalition of the willing in Afghanistan under Operation Enduring Freedom. In his dual capacity as COMISAF and COMUSFOR-A, General McChrystal has taken measures to move as many troops and assets – Americans and other nationalities – as possible from OEF to ISAF. Indeed, there will soon be very little remaining of OEF in Afghanistan. Surely a vote of confidence in NATO?

To say that NATO has proved to be inefficient for overseas contingency operations and then, on that basis, question its utility and/or relevance requires a considerable stretch of the imagination. The real question is this: if NATO should not do that job then who else is there?

Nobody. There simply is no one else. NATO is the only mechanism that can fulfil those tasks. I use the word mechanism very deliberately. The Alliance is a mechanism, or an instrument, that its members can choose to apply to any given situation, or not. As such, NATO is only as good as the sum of its parts. In other words, the mechanism will only work if there is the necessary political and popular will to provide the necessary military, civilian and financial resources to accomplish the mission and that has never been the case.

It is probably accurate to say that the mechanism is inefficient (or less than optimal) for this kind of operation but we have to realise that we have never seen the likes of this operation before, both in character and in scale. If the mechanism remains inefficient (and I’ll take issue with that shortly) then national capitals have to assume responsibility because it is they who make the decisions. To lay the blame at NATO’s doorstep is to blame the puppet, not the puppeteers.

To say that the war has entered its tenth year and is still going badly also requires a considerable stretch of the imagination. Nobody would argue that there are major difficulties and that ISAF did not imagine that it would be in this situation in 2010. However, we should remind ourselves of certain basic facts here.

NATO only assumed control of ISAF in August 2003 and with a very limited mandate. In certain parts of Afghanistan – the south and east – NATO had no presence until late 2006 and even then did not have the necessary number of troops on the ground until last summer. Until then, there were only half-measures. The international community was too long distracted by the fiasco in Iraq (which had nothing to do with NATO) and either ignored or misjudged the serious problems growing in Afghanistan.

This is not the tenth year of the war – it is the first year of a new counter-insurgency campaign. Be that as it may, the international community – of which NATO is only one element among many, most of whom are simply not doing enough in Afghanistan – has left itself very little time to get the job done. Generals and politicians from Allied nations have made no secret of the fact that the tide must be turned this year.

In the meantime, I think it would behoove us Europeans to reserve judgement on the counter-insurgency campaign – and on NATO’s suitability as the driving force for that process – for the next 6-12 months. Then and only then will facts on the ground allow us to respond to these questions with some degree of authority.

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