Recently, extensive media coverage has been devoted to NATO’s inability to secure more troops for its mission in Afghanistan. It should not be surprising the NATO is having difficulties with force generation as getting boots on the ground has always been difficult for the Alliance. The UK Secretary of State for Defence is right to say that NATO needs to “…look at its structures and bureaucracy so that it can generate a force in a way that responds to real time needs…” But, there are two fundamental problems with this analysis that the Secretary overlooks.
First, many NATO member states are simply not capable of delivering the requisite number of troops required for long term peace-making and peace-keeping missions. There has not been a shift in thinking within member state policy establishments that such missions are not ‘bolt on’ accessories to Western military objectives, but that they are a core mission. The odds of an all out massive war requiring high tech weaponry, but perhaps less numbers of troops is relatively low. The need for massive numbers of ‘boots on the ground’ to combat disorder in failing and failed states is significantly more present. There are currently 15 major peace-keeping operations around the world, many of which are supported in some form by Western militaries. The UK has deployments around the world including 8,500 in Iraq, 5,600 in Afghanistan and 8,500 in Northern Ireland. The new force to the Lebanon is now putting an additional strain on resources. It is time to confront reality and realize that only so much can be done at the same time.
Secondly, members need not only to provide troops, but they need to provide troops without major constraints placed upon them. It is difficult to get troops into theatre, but once they are there some troops are still do not fulfil their full potential. This is because many governments place a number of caveats on the deployment. These include restrictions on the type of engagement (i.e. troops may only be used in reconstruction efforts, not fighting). They can also be restricted to certain areas of operation. This is one of the problems currently facing NATO ISAF commander General Richards in Afghanistan. He is in desperate need of more troops to maintain control of the security situation in the South. Dutch, Canadian and British troops have been engaged in difficult and intense combat for week. While these troops are fighting a fierce battle in the South, some 3,000 German troops are stuck in the North because the Bundestag will not lift restrictions on the deployment which limit where German forces can be used. While some troops are needed to maintain security in the North, a good number of these German troops could be redeployed elsewhere (such as the South) to better effect, according to what General Richard sees as top priorities.
In short, then it is easy to point the finger at NATO and say that the Alliance needs to reorganize itself. What is more difficult is to confront the situations in each member state. All the NATO members, Britain included need to look at their investment in the armed forces. The Government has asked British troops to do more with less and less over the last decade. Fewer troops with fewer resources are being deployed longer and more often. This seems a bit nonsensical. If forces are stretched to the max governments need to address what must be done to maintain commitments and take on new missions. Governments can control the size and composition of their armed forces; they cannot unfortunately limit the number of conflicts that might arise. Once NATO members address this problem then they should look at how political decisions tie the hands of NATO’s military commanders in the field. The leadership in member states should work to ensure that troops are provided with the least number of restrictions possible. If these two points are addressed, concurrent to NATO overhauling its force generation bureaucracy and structures, then perhaps real change can occur. But without national attention to these issues, calls for change in NATO are useless.
Dr. Michael J. Williams is the Head of the Transatlantic Security Programme at RUSI.