NATO at Sixty: Unhappy Returns

This is a lousy time to be hitting sixty; and the candles on the birthday cake are as likely to be lit in response to a power cut as a celebration. Getting older is no more fun for an alliance than for its individual leaders.  In the midst of global chaos caused by the collapse of traditional international structures and the major power shifts that the economic crisis is already causing, can NATO honestly look forward to a seventieth birthday in anything other than failing health?

By Professor Michael Clarke, Director of RUSI
This article first appeared in the April 2009 issue of The World Today.

NATO must use this somber birthday to do some honest re-thinking about its role and capabilities for the next decade. It should do this, at very least, for the good of transatlantic security. Afghanistan is the most immediate issue on the agenda, but it is not the most important. The most important issue is, as it always was, for NATO to link North America to European security and through that to have a stable relationship with Russia. This may have seemed out-moded ten years ago but it is coming back into fashion with a vengeance now.

Pillar in the Storm

That age-old combination still offers the essential framework that helps stabilise everything else. In this time of political turmoil which is likely to split the European Union, bring down some key governments in the Mediterranean and the Middle East, and certainly in south Asia, create new pressures in Eastern Europe, and make Russia a weakened, but more assertive, power in Eurasia, any organisation that can do this is a welcome pillar to lash ourselves to in the coming storm.

Most of the issues that have exercised NATO in the last decade will be seen in this perspective as the storm breaks around us. Enlargement has burnished NATO’s exterior but has not strengthened it. Military reform, ballistic missile defence, counter-proliferation initiatives, anti-terrorism or administrative streamlining have been important items on its agenda but their net effect has probably diminished the internal consensus rather than bolstered it. And the Partnership for Peace, the Membership Action Plan and wider association agreements have had positive influences within and beyond Europe, but are essentially marginal to NATO’s core rationale.

That rationale, rather, revolves around creating a more proactive consensus among alliance members on the nature of the most tangible threats to European security; making the attack on- one being an attack-on-all implications of the 1949Washington Treaty’s Article 5 mean something important again; diminishing the à la carte attitudes to collective security commitments that have been evident in the last two decades; and making NATO far more cautious about taking-on new commitments. The full participation of French forces in the integrated military structure of the alliance may help in these endeavours.

Coming Home 

That core rationale will undoubtedly be reasserted at NATO’s anniversary summit. It remains to be seen how much genuine political commitment will follow, however, and whether NATO is able, to ‘come home’ in both a physical and a perceptual sense. This is why the immediacy of the Afghanistan operation matters.

European forces might well choose to be involved in Afghanistan for all sorts of good reasons, and like the Gulf War of 1991, NATO’s unseen hand might be present in the way they have learned to work together. But there is a significant difference between operating in an ad hoc way on the basis of individual national interests, and operating because of a collective NATO commitment, reluctantly accepted. Indeed the Afghan operation might now be much better placed if it were working on the former basis rather than the latter.

Nevertheless, if NATO, as a committed alliance, should come home to address renewed security concerns in and around Europe, it can hardly do so by reneging on its current – UN mandated – obligations, or come scurrying back in the wake of military reverses. If it is to come home as a credible military organisation, it must do so in good order. But the challenges are daunting.

Stability in Afghanistan

NATO’s task is not to ‘win’ in Afghanistan since that is not a meaningful concept in this situation, but rather to ‘prevail’ in some significant sense that leaves the country essentially stable, and in the hands of its own people. When it declares victory and leaves, there has to be some credibility to the claims NATO will then make. This means that stability will have to be judged in a regional context. All that could go right in Afghanistan will count for nothing if Pakistan becomes the new basket case of south Asia. Afghanistan also borders Iran, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and China, while both Russia and India have legitimate interests in the stability of the Afghan/Pakistan nexus.

Stability in Afghanistan is therefore a necessary but not sufficient condition for wider regional stability; and if that slips away for other reasons, any hard-won steadying in Afghanistan will be extraordinarily difficult to maintain. To be more successful there, NATO’s military force must be seen as both effective and legitimate in what it does. Its operations have to appeal to the pragmatists in the territories bordering Afghanistan and to gain respect, however grudging, in the country itself. If there is any single lesson from the crises in the Balkans during the 1990s, it is not that the use of force has necessarily to be consensual or somehow impartial in a fractured society, but that it has to be perceived as effective and legitimate in equal measure.

NATO could do this, even after so many years of backsliding, as long as its actions are built on a much clearer civil/military strategy and on an effective comprehensive approach in the way it is implemented. But that also means some quite unpalatable things. The comprehensive approach means that civilian agencies must either be prepared to operate in dangerous areas, or else that military formations take on many more civilian roles.

‘Development’ cannot be sequenced behind ‘security’, following on only when security is established. Development is an intrinsic part of security in Afghanistan and has to proceed simultaneously. Coalition forces have begun to work much more closely with local leaders and their quasi-official militias. More of this has to be done to build on the consistent dislike of most Afghans for the Taliban and Al Qaeda, even at the price of local corruption and the likelihood that many Afghans will switch sides occasionally as the loyalty market fluctuates.

Buy the Opium!

Afghan elections in August must be made to work properly, either to re-legitimise President Hamid Karzai’s government in the eyes of Afghans or else to suggest a credible alternative. NATO cannot afford to take a gradualist approach to breaking the stranglehold that narcotics have over the government and administration of Afghanistan. Something quick and dramatic is needed to deal a fresh political deck, especially in the southern provinces.

Buying-up the whole opium crop for the next two years would do that, though it would be a one-off initiative with side effects that would have to be managed. And it would only work if other parts of the comprehensive strategy were properly operational. Far more officer training and command and control resource will need to go into the development of the Afghan National Army and the police; success so far has been patchy and inexplicably gradual. These should be top priorities behind day-to-day operational necessities for NATO forces. Not least, NATO’s boots-on-the-ground problem is more literal than it sounds. The way the coalition employs its air power is a factor which de-legitimises its use of force. Last year, more than two thousand civilians were killed in the fighting – forty percent up on 2007 – and more than eight hundred of these deaths were caused by coalition forces; chiefly its air forces.

In the eyes of the Afghan public, NATO’s air power is the moral equivalent of the Taliban and Al Qa’ida who killed over 1,100 civilians last year. The coalition should conduct operations with much greater emphasis on a ground strategy, even though that will create a tactical disadvantage; the strategic argument outweighs it. It is not clear that NATO has the political will to make a more focused, comprehensive ground strategy work, but it is difficult to see any alternative either for the country or the region as a whole. Only by creating an effective package can NATO push Afghanistan decisively in the direction of stability and give western policymakers some elbow room to pursue a more coherent regional strategy in south and central Asia.

Success in Afghanistan will not in itself bring success in the wider region. But failure in Afghanistan will almost certainly lead to failure in the surrounding areas and create an even bigger political mountain for western allies to climb. If that happens, there may be precious little left of NATO, as an effective military alliance, to return home. Happy birthday NATO.

This article first appeared in the April 2009 issue of The World Today.




Professor Michael Clarke

Distinguished Fellow

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