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NATO Deadends in Afghanistan

What the US must do now.

Munich, Germany: The Battle of Waterloo was to Napoleon Bonaparte what the war in Afghanistan could become for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Emperor Bonaparte lost at Waterloo and was exiled.  NATO’s relevance is crumbling in Afghanistan which could relegate the mutual defense alliance to history’s trash heap. That, however, could provide the United States an opportunity to shift resources to an alliance of combat-ready global partners.

Last week, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was in Europe to urge NATO defense ministers to get serious about fighting the war in Afghanistan. Gates warned, “I worry a great deal about the alliance evolving into a two-tiered alliance, in which you have some allies willing to fight and die to protect peoples’ security, and others who are not.” Gates warns, “I think that it puts a cloud over the future of the alliance if this is to endure, or perhaps even get worse.”

Others echo Gates’ assessment. Retired US Marine Corps General James Jones, who serves as a Bush administration special envoy, concluded in a Center for the Study of the Presidency report that the Afghan mission is under “serious threat” because of the uneven commitment of NATO nations.

In August 2003, the 59-year-old alliance assumed command of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. This became NATO’s first post Cold War test out of sector. 

There is serious counterinsurgency in the southern part of Afghanistan while relative stability is found elsewhere. The allies doing the dying — Americans, British, Dutch and Canadians — want help in the south but many alliance partners seem unwilling to fight.

Many NATO troops such as the Germans arrive in Afghanistan with national caveats that preclude them from offensive operations. Other nations only volunteer non-combatants.  "Caveats deny me the ability to plan and prosecute," ISAF commander General Dan McNeill said. "I can’t amass them to where I might have a decisive point. . . . Obviously I can’t move as quickly as I want to."

The overall troop numbers are insufficient as well. Afghanistan has more land mass and a larger population than Iraq. The US-alone has 155,000 troops in Iraq. By comparison, there are 55,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan with 41,000 under NATO’s command. A senior NATO official told this writer that a troops-to-task analysis would allocate 800,000 to Afghanistan.

The US, responding to NATO’s shortfall, is deploying an additional 3,200 Marines for seven months. Gates has two purposes behind this deployment: to guarantee security gains in the south and to encourage NATO to “see if they could dig deeper and come up with more troops.” Germany, for example, has only 6,000 of its 250,000 military deployed abroad. 

There are also equipment and technology issues. Recently, Gen McNeil said that to attain a minimal force requirement he needs more helicopters for transport and aviation for intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance. But NATO nations lack these resources critical to counterinsurgency operations in the vast spaces of Afghanistan. In addition, there are serious doctrinal differences.

Last month at a NATO meeting in Scotland, Gates said, "Most of the European forces, NATO forces, are not trained in counterinsurgency; they were trained for the Fulda Gap" the German region where a Soviet invasion of Western Europe was deemed most likely.

Predictably, NATO officials bristled at the suggestion. A NATO official argued, "The reason there is more fighting now is because we’ve uncovered a very big rock and lots of things are scurrying out."

The specific criticism is that some NATO allies are overly dependent on heavy weaponry, including airstrikes, and this may have contributed to rising violence. However, by comparison, US forces tend to get it right, says McNeil. “[I]t’s generally accepted amongst many members of the alliance that the most effective counterinsurgency operations that are presently occurring in Afghanistan are occurring in the US sector. That’s not a derisive comment …. It’s just that clearly the US has put the effort [read money and manpower] into making this piece of it right…,” McNeil explained.

“The problems NATO faces in Afghanistan are just a symptom of what is wrong with the alliance,” says Michael Williams, director of the Transatlantic Program at the Royal United Services Institute in London. The alliance is not united about its mission and equitability of investment.

It’s not clear among the membership whether NATO should be a Europe-only defense pact to take care of flare-ups like Bosnia or whether it should include expeditionary capabilities for Afghanistan-like operations. 

There is also the matter of not enough deployable troops. Julian Lindley-French’s study for the British Bertelsmann Foundation states Europe’s military is hollow. “There are 1.7 million Europeans in uniform, but only 170,000 soldiers of which 40-50,000 could be used for robust combat operations at any one time,” states Lindley-French. Only about 25,000 are truly deployable due to other missions and they tend to be British or French.

The lack of troops is partly due to decreased defense investment. After the Cold War, NATO countries cashed in their militaries for peace dividends. Security budgets dropped to near one percent of national GDPs. Even after the attacks of September 11, only the US expanded its security investments. Today, the US invests 4.2 percent of its GDP in defense while NATO’s other members fall short of the alliance’s target of two percent GDP.

This lack of investment highlights a misunderstood reality about modern warfare. Most NATO nations use their defense money to sustain Cold War era militaries while the US has rapidly transformed its force into an expeditionary, highly sophisticated, world-class fighting machine. This has created a major capability gap between the US and most of NATO and may explain the misguided complaint about US unilateralism. 

The US often fights unilaterally because it has no peer. It has a significant technological and fighting expertise edge over virtually every ally and across all combat operating systems.

Many ask why the US should stay with NATO. Perhaps NATO will fix itself out of necessity.

A future attack on the mainland by terrorists with ties outside the region could inspire some serious soul searching among NATO’s complacent and politically correct members. The alliance might then decide it needs a legitimate expeditionary capability. There is also the likelihood that the Russian bear will re-emerge to threaten Western Europe or Iran will gain nuclear weapons. 

The US must not wait for NATO to be shocked out of its complacency, however. America should quickly shift resources out of NATO and coalesce with allies such as the British and Australians who are willing to fight. These countries, both in combat capabilities and policy, are reliable allies in the war on terror. The rest need a stiff kick in the rear.

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Written By

Robert Maginnis is a retired Army lieutenant colonel, and a national security and foreign affairs analyst for radio and television.

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