A very interesting and in the end, a very depressing article in The Guardian this morning about some recommendations by a blue ribbon panel of ex-military leaders in NATO who believe that the organization is in danger of becoming irrelevant to the security interests of its members.
In short, they conclude that NATO is not addressing the fundamental security threats facing the organization in a rapidly changing world and that there is a real danger that NATO itself will not survive many of the challenges facing it.
The headline grabbing part of the article is actually the least surprising – that NATO should maintain its nuclear first strike option. This has always been NATO’s unstated doctrine going back to the cold war given the huge perceived disparity in conventional forces the organization was facing from the Soviets. It was always believed that the US would have to abandon Western Europe in the face of a Soviet attack or launch its missiles. Maintaining this doctrine then is not surprising when faced with the possibility of rogue states or terrorist organizations threatening a launch against a NATO member.
The authors of this “manifesto” are an eye opening lot and “paint an alarming picture of the threats and challenges confronting the west in the post-9/11 world and deliver a withering verdict on the ability to cope.”
General John Shalikashvili, the former chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff and Nato’s ex-supreme commander in Europe, General Klaus Naumann, Germany’s former top soldier and ex-chairman of Nato’s military committee, General Henk van den Breemen, a former Dutch chief of staff, Admiral Jacques Lanxade, a former French chief of staff, and Lord Inge, field marshal and ex-chief of the general staff and the defence staff in the UK.
And this distinguished group of dedicated soldiers did not create this document in a vacuum; they discussed their findings and got recommendations from a wide variety of current and former civilian and military leaders.
Here are some key findings:
The five commanders argue that the west’s values and way of life are under threat, but the west is struggling to summon the will to defend them. The key threats are:
Â· Political fanaticism and religious fundamentalism.
Â· The “dark side” of globalisation, meaning international terrorism, organised crime and the spread of weapons of mass destruction.
Â· Climate change and energy security, entailing a contest for resources and potential “environmental” migration on a mass scale.
Â· The weakening of the nation state as well as of organisations such as the UN, Nato and the EU.
So is this a call to action? Or the last gasp of a dying organization that is making a final attempt to reconstitute itself in order to become relevant to its members and the security of the world?
As peacekeepers, NATO is doing a pretty good job in Bosnia and Kosovo. As warriors in Afghanistan, the organization is losing the war to the Taliban.
Now diplomats and the military fear unless something is done to revitalise strategy against the Taliban, Western governments will also lose their will and pull out their troops. Without Western backing, Karzai’s government may not last very long.
“If we cannot show progress in the next year or two, or at least show we are moving in the right direction, we will have serious difficulty in keeping some of our partners engaged in Afghanistan,” said one senior Western diplomat.
Six years after the Taliban were ousted following the Sept. 11 attacks, support for the war is waning and Canada, Germany and the Netherlands could withdraw troops by 2010, leaving a big hole that other NATO nations may be unwilling or unable to fill.
But it isn’t just support for the war at home that is the problem. The fact is, according to Defense Secretary Gates, that not only are NATO soldiers not trained for a counter-insurgency mission but that NATO governments themselves are reluctant to commit their troops to combat:
“I’m worried we’re deploying [military advisors] that are not properly trained and I’m worried we have some military forces that don’t know how to do counter-insurgency operations … Most of the European forces, NATO forces, are not trained in counter-insurgency; they were trained for the Fulda Gap [NATO’s Cold War battle lines in Germany].”
Gates warned the NATO mission “has exposed real limitations in the way the alliance is, or organized, operated and equipped. I believe the problem arises in a large part due to the way various allies view the very nature of the alliance in the 21st century, where in a post-Cold War environment, we have to be ready to operate in distant locations against insurgencies and terrorist networks.” He solicited help from US Congressmen for “pressuring” the NATO capitals “to do the difficult work of persuading their own citizens [in Europe] of the need to step up to this challenge.”
Gates again spoke forcefully at the meeting of NATO defense ministers in Edinburgh, Scotland, on December 14. But “no one at the table stood up and said: ‘I agree with that’,” he later lamented.
Only the Dutch, Canadians, British, Australian, and American forces engage in combat operations in Afghanistan (the French have several hundred special forces operating in the north). For the rest, there are “caveats” – legal loopholes in the NATO charter that allows nations to avoid the fighting – and according to the manifesto, are contributing to NATO losing the war in Afghanistan:
In the wake of the latest row over military performance in Afghanistan, touched off when the US defence secretary, Robert Gates, said some allies could not conduct counter-insurgency, the five senior figures at the heart of the western military establishment also declare that Nato’s future is on the line in Helmand province.
“Nato’s credibility is at stake in Afghanistan,” said Van den Breemen.
“Nato is at a juncture and runs the risk of failure,” according to the blueprint.
Naumann delivered a blistering attack on his own country’s performance in Afghanistan. “The time has come for Germany to decide if it wants to be a reliable partner.” By insisting on “special rules” for its forces in Afghanistan, the Merkel government in Berlin was contributing to “the dissolution of Nato”.
Ron Asmus, head of the German Marshall Fund thinktank in Brussels and a former senior US state department official, described the manifesto as “a wake-up call”. “This report means that the core of the Nato establishment is saying we’re in trouble, that the west is adrift and not facing up to the challenges.”
To put the caveats used by a majority of NATO countries in Afghanistan in perspective, one Canadian officer was quoted as saying “â€œHow many battalions does it take to protect Kabul airport?â€
Recommendations in the manifesto are pointed and specific:
To prevail, the generals call for an overhaul of Nato decision-taking methods, a new “directorate” of US, European and Nato leaders to respond rapidly to crises, and an end to EU “obstruction” of and rivalry with Nato. Among the most radical changes demanded are:
Â· A shift from consensus decision-taking in Nato bodies to majority voting, meaning faster action through an end to national vetoes.
Â· The abolition of national caveats in Nato operations of the kind that plague the Afghan campaign.
Â· No role in decision-taking on Nato operations for alliance members who are not taking part in the operations.
Â· The use of force without UN security council authorisation when “immediate action is needed to protect large numbers of human beings”.
The European left will not support any of these changes. In fact, the commitment of troops in Afghanistan by most NATO countries is opposed by a majority of their own populations. And if Afghanistan is a red line that NATO must prove its worth or perish, then I fear the entire alliance is in mortal danger of collapsing given the recalcitrance of large NATO member states like Germany and France in committing more of their troops to the fight.
NATO wanted this job. They criticized the US mercilessly for “going it alone” in Iraq and Afghanistan. But now that the Taliban has been reconstituted (thanks largely to Pakistan’s inaction in the border provinces and US inaction in tamping down poppy production) several member states are looking anxiously at their domestic political position knowing full well that increased casualties as a result of them allowing their troops to engage in combat operations will almost certainly drive the left into the streets demanding a withdrawal.
This is something those countries never bargained for when they allowed their troops to be deployed under NATO’s banner in Afghanistan. At the time NATO agreed to the Afghan mission, it appeared to be mostly a reconstruction and peacekeeping operation. And now that they are desperately needed as combat troops to assist the Canadians and Dutch in the south in fighting off a growing number of Taliban fighters, they feel their hands are tied by a domestic opposition that opposes anything NATO does to help the United States.
If NATO won’t fight in Afghanistan, where will they fight? As Russia grows in strength and confidence under Vladmir Putin, the former satellites of the old Soviet Union who are now NATO members may start to wonder if the countries of western Europe will confront that menace if a showdown were to come. With western interests and credibility at stake in Afghanistan and member states failing to answer the call, it is a legitimate question whether NATO would fight in the Baltic states or even in Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic.
NATO has had many crisis in the past but perhaps none that threatened the organization in such an existential way. NATO is struggling to find a reason to exist. And unless its member states can overcome their reluctance to commit to the idea of collective western security, it is possible that NATO will pass into history as just one more alliance that unravelled due to its own internal contradictions.
Most of the buzz on this article is centered around the pre-emptive nuclear strike aspect of the story. As I mention above, this is nothing new – just a recommendation to continue a long standing policy that NATO was forced by default to follow once the perceived superiority of Soviet conventional forces became so overwhelming.
However, as Dave Schuler points out, announcing such a policy may defeat its purpose:
In the end Iâ€™m left with a number of questions. First, does strategic ambiguity enhance or diminish deterrence? Is it a political necessity that undermines the strength of deterrence? Second, does a supernational organization like NATO increase the strength of the nation state or reduce it? How does the majority rule provision of the report influence that? Finally, what is the role of NATO today? U. S. defense expenditures are around 4% of GDP, Britainâ€™s around 2% and under substantial scrutiny at home, Franceâ€™s somewhat lower, and Germanyâ€™s below 2% and falling. If NATOâ€™s members, accustomed to the U. S. military aegis, elect to have armed forces incapable of projecting force beyond Europe, of what practical use is the old military alliance?
Excellent questions all that the report (James Joyner found a PDF link here) fails to address.
Allah wonders whether the report’s nuclear option is aimed at Iran or Pakistan and if this is evidence of NATO’s growing irrelevancy:
Iâ€™m guessing this is aimed more at Iran than Pakistan, although a confirmed report of nukes loose in the tribal areas would naturally warrant a â€œstrongâ€ response. Itâ€™s not clear if theyâ€™re referring to pinpoint nuclear bunker busters to destroy underground weapons facilities or some sort of larger, make-an-example decapitating strike (the ambiguity is probably intentional), but the fact that theyâ€™re willing to rattle this particular saber publicly shows how helpless they feel re: other deterrent options. The west can roll back proliferation, they say, but it had better be prepared to make some hard choices to do so.