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Three Perspectives on NATO and Afghanistan

The escalating conflict between European countries and the United States over the level of commitment to Afghanistan has spurred a good deal of commentary. There are very different perspectives on who is to blame, but a consistent theme is that the conflict has deeper roots in what Europe and the US see as the future role of NATO.

In a long, complex argument - Cracks in the Foundation: NATO's New Troubles - the CATO Institute's Stanley Kober compares NATO's current troubles in Afghanistan to the long-forgotten SEATO. The South East Asian Treaty Organisation eventually dissolved in 1977 after failing to engage in Vietnam, a war the US fought on its own and eventually disengaged from. Although circumstances are different, he argues that a loss in Afghanistan might bring the alliance into an existential crisis.

America, Kober argues, should not extent security guarantees when it is not absolutely certain that it can back up these guarantees. Therefore, instead of seeking to expand NATO even further, the US should consider the real possibility that it will not last, and he concludes:

Given the difficulties the alliance is confronting, it is not too early to begin discussions with our allies about what a post-NATO world would look like. They have put their trust in us, and we have an obligation to them, and to ourselves, to face the world honestly.

In the Los Angeles Times, Boston University international relations professor Andrew Bacevich has a similarly bleak piece called NATO at Twilight. Bacevich focuses on the degraded capacities of European countries, and the lower amount of solidarity the alliance can now command. His main criticism, however, is directed at the Bush administration, which, he states "is kidding itself if it thinks Europeans will save the day in Afghanistan." According to Bacevich, the only realistic remaining purpose of NATO is securing European integration.

Foreign affairs journalist Eric Margolis goes even further in his Edmonton Sun piece, Europeans can see what America cannot:

At this week's NATO conference in Vilnius, Lithuania, an angry U.S. Secretary of Defence Robert Gates accused some Europeans of not being prepared to "fight and die" in Afghanistan in the battle against the Taliban.

The undiplomatic Gates is quite right. Most Europeans regard the Afghan conflict as a) wrong and immoral; b) America's war; c) all about oil; or d) probably lost.

Margolis himself seems to choose door 'd)', citing increasing attacks on supply lines in Pakistan, and a recent statement by ISAF commanding officer Dan Mcneill that a proper counterinsurgency campaign would require 400,000 troops. He also argues that by pushing this impopular, distant war, the United States is undermining its power in Europe, which is mostly provided through the alliance.

The role of NATO is understood on very different levels. It is alternatively seen as an institution furthering European integration; a possibly obsolete but also potentially overstretched check on Russia, and a tool for furthering American influence in Europe.

The US itself does have a clear policy spelling out what it wants from NATO: A more outward looking alliance that will support its global missions. Disagreement on whether that is something Europe wants NATO to do is perfectly valid, but European countries can only reach a compromise with the US when there is a European policy on NATO's role. Unlike the increasingly disaffected public, European government leaders still believe in the alliance. Quite what they want from it is less clear.

(hat-tip to the European Tribune for the Margolis piece and to reader Don S for the Bacevich piece)

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joe on :

Nanne, Do you have a source for McNeil’s comment about troop levels other than Margolis opinion piece? There seems to be no reference to this number anywhere? It would appear it is a number pulled from Margolis butt, which you seem ready to accept as factual. If it were factual, it would seem it would have been reported some place other than a Canadian newspaper in an opinion piece. (I was unable to find it in any DOD, NATO or ISAF briefings or press releases.) I am a bit confused about whether you are talking about European leaders as in the EU or European leaders as in NATO and the need to have a European policy position on NATO. There is a great difference between these two. If you are talking about the former, then NATO has in fact ceased to exist in its current form. It is time to disband NATO. The security of Europe can be turned over to the EU under the ESDP. The EU already has a Rapid Deployment Force. Such a decision would leave the US free from guaranteeing security to those nations, which do not share the same sense of threat as the US, does and are not prepared to address those threats in a meaningful way to insure security. It surely would improve relations and perceptions of America within Europe. I for one do not understand why the US needs to underwrite the integration of Europe. This is especially true when many of the nations in Europe want to become a competitor to the US. It would be interesting to read your rational for this US need and the benefits you see the US receiving. It would seem the US has currently been doing this since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War.

Pat Patterson on :

joe-Gen McNeill was referring to the ideal counter-insurgency numbers which would have included both the ISAF and Afghan forces not as the piece suggested 400,000 ISAF troops. And he certainly was not suggesting that the failure to provide this number meant that the ISAF would suffer a strategic defeat or even that Afghanistan couldn't be pacified. Margulis didn't pull that number from a dark place but he was ignorant of the meaning or simply had some kind of ax to grind. Yet at both the DOD briefing and an interview the general gave for the VOA he stressed that the Taliban are not resurgent in any province and that the yearly declaration of a Taliban spring offensive was already being dealt with. Obviously he would prefer more troops, what general wouldn't, but his message was clear that the ISAF was in no danger from the Taliban except at some small tactical levels, suicide bombs, attacks on FOPs, or attacks on Afghan soldiers or police. And that his main concern was in length of deployment and the lack of operational mobility of some of the other ISAF forces. I think that is a nice way of saying that some of the allies are simply taking up space in their barracks. The link to the DOD briefing from 2/06/08; [url]http://www.defenselink.mil/transcripts/transcript.aspx?transcriptid=4138[/url] And the VOA interview; [url]http://voanews.com/english/2008-02-06-voa56.cfm[/url]

Nanne on :

Joe, I'll thank Don S for doing the sleuthing for me. For the record, I'm only representing this as a citation. I do think that the statement, in the context of the interview, is still quite strong and McNeill is equivocating it in his longer answer. I'm talking about European leaders as the leaders of European NATO countries. Turkey aside, though, all European NATO countries of real consequence are also EU Members, and their leaders thereby also EU leaders. And there are no EU countries of consequence that are not in NATO. So I disagree that the two are really different. If the point of NATO is, as Bacevich suggests, merely to further European integration and prosperity, then I, like you, do not see that the US gets enough out of it. Competition, in an economic sense, is supposed to be a positive-sum game, though. At least that's the US point of view, so if Europe is integrated and prosperous, that should be in the US' interest. But I don't think that in itself suffices. What Margolis suggests, that NATO is the principal instrument of American influence in European politics, is also worth considering.

Don S on :

Joe, I googled "McNeill 400,000" and came up with this link: http://www.defenselink.mil/transcripts/transcript.aspx?transcriptid=4138 Q But if you've got your minimalist force, what would -- what if you didn't have to worry about the concerns of -- kind of reality of what resources are out there? If you were to design your own, you know, way ahead in Afghanistan without any constraints, what would you want to see? I know you said 400,000 including indigenous -- GEN. MCNEILL: Well over 400,000. Q Well over 400,000. What would you need to see in terms of our forces? GEN. MCNEILL: I'm not sure that we need that number, although that's what U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine would prescribe on the basis of geography and population. I spend a lot of time these days working on where do events occur and why do they particularly occur in those regions. Last year we mostly focused on the 34 provinces. We went back at the end of the year and reviewed everything that occurred, all the events that were reported by ISAF forces, OEF forces, the Afghan security forces, U.N., EU and anybody else who reports some significant event." "So I'd say we're at a juncture right now that it's not about huge numbers of international forces, nor taking the Afghan national army beyond the 80,000, I think, is the agreed-to level right now. But it's about getting effective police out where they need to be. And so I'd be reluctant to say I need this many tens of thousands. What I think we need is, more than huge numbers of international force, is effective capacity in the Afghan national army and in the Afghan national police." There is less than meets the eye here, much less. Margolis is cherry-picking McNaill's statement very selectively to support his thesis, but it's complete BS.

Don S on :

The Kober and Bacevich pieces are far closer to the mark. Bacevich criticizes the Bush administration for failing to understand the reality of NATO overstretch, but I think it's a case of the conventional wisdom lagging behind reality whgich has bitten Bush. Bacevich also mercilessly exposes the CAUSE of NATO's problems, which is a huge and increasing ratio of free-rider members to actual contributors. Even Margolis got some things dead right, though. I can't disagree with the following, and I doubt joe would either: "Why does the rich, powerful European Union even need NATO any more? The Soviet threat is gone -- at least for now. Nuclear-armed France and Britain are quite capable of defending Europe against outside threats. Why can't the new European Defence Force take over NATO's role of defending Europe and protecting EU interests?" Agreed?

franchie on :

"Why does the rich, powerful European Union even need NATO any more? The Soviet threat is gone -- at least for now. Nuclear-armed France and Britain are quite capable of defending Europe against outside threats. Why can't the new European Defence Force take over NATO's role of defending Europe and protecting EU interests?" That's precisely what said Chirac last year about the same month ; that didn't find a cheerful echo in Germany though ; might be a concurrence bitterness as far as being the "opinion" leadership in EU there.

Don S on :

Because the EDF is more theoritical than actual currently? Because apart from the UK almost no other European country has any experience in actually fighting a shooting war (unless one counts Ivory Coast/Chad) as such, that is. Then France qualifies. The youngest German war veteran is 80, unless you count mercenaries. The Russians have a lot of experience in the past 20 years, in Afghanistan and Chechnya. Experience counts in warfare, and the Russians have an advantage there as well as in manpower and possibly technology.

Nanne on :

The Russians do not have an advantage in manpower, quite the opposite, they have about half the soldiers. But talk about the respective capabilities is altogether too hypothetical.

Don S on :

Whether the Russians have a manpower advantage depends completely upon which NATO allies have elected to fight this week, this month, or this year, and how much the combined allies have decided to allocate. The Afghan war has established that precedent. Let's say the Ursine Empire (a fictional construct) decides to invade Brandenberg next month. Article Five would be duely invoked, and then the various allies would decide what to send to help out the Saxons. So let's suppose the US decides to send a generous 3000+ troops to garrison Hamburg (not in Saxony I know). The total manpower of the US armed forces does not matter, only the 3000+ committed. And with terms of engagement properly determined by the US Congress even they might prove somewhat less useful than anticispated..... This principal can be extended to the entire alliance. Remember that it's not the total populace of Spain or Italy which counts, it's the number of effectively trained, equipped, and led forces which Spain or Italy possesses and is willing to commit.

franchie on :

"unless you count mercenaries" seems you only heard of them as far as our militaries ; the paratroopers that are sent in Afghanistan and in Africa aren't mercenaries though ; they are of the special forces that operate in special missions : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/3rd_Marine_Infantry_Parachute_Regiment "Because the EDF is more theoritical than actual currently", hein?

Don S on :

""unless you count mercenaries" seems you only heard of them as far as our militaries ;" Franchie, that was specifically written about the Germans. If you can find references to actual combat operations the Germans have participated in post 1945 except for mercenaries I would be grateful for the information. Unles you count the hostage rescue in Kenya - but that's about it. The French are a slightly different story. Certain French units have certainly fought in *real* fights since the wars in North Africa ended in the early 60's but my impression is that the experience has been limited in scope to elite formations like the paratroop regiment you linked to. The expeience of the US and the UK is far more widespread & not limited to the SAS and Delta Force..... So there is experience but not widespread experience - unless there is war in the French areas of Afghanistan which nobody is writing about? Hardly likely - combat deaths in quantity are difficult to cover up.

franchie on :

I do have neerdandanthal DNA, that's why I can't catch all your subtilities ; "So there is experience but not widespread experience " I agree, that's also our militaries's statement, they observe how your doing. Well, it doesn't seems that such "widespread conflicts" are expected in the future though ; I have read that the army "heads", even in your country, small interventions type of forces, that can be quickly moved to a conflict place

Don S on :

Franchie, if you wish to observe something comical one day watch me communicate in France! One time my mother collapsed with laughter after observing me get my point across with a sentence composed of English, French, German, and Italian words accompanied by liberal use of the hands of course! The funniest thing was that it actually worked! I have only a few words of the Francais (Merci, Beaucoup, S'il vous plais, etc) but I try to make full use of my French vocabulary when in France. I think it works better than speaking only english because it shows respect. Someday I dream of spending a month (or more) at Alliance Francais to learn much more..... I have some Italian but it is so old that I need half a bottle of vino to speak with any volubility. A bottle is better; but then I completely lose my grammar of course! Which entertains my Italian friends no end, although they are polite enough not to say so!

franchie on :

I am a 3 foreign languages speaker too, english is the best : german, the everyday language, italian after a few days in Italy it comes ok, hand language is quite good though

Don S on :

Two languages only for me, and my Italian is kind of primitive. Decent vocabulary and phrasing, but atrocious grammar when I have to create. I can make myself understood & that's about it. My French and German is pretty vestigial. I wish I could live and work in France because it could improve it pretty fast - but you can't work in France without being fluent in Francais.

franchie on :

depends on what work you are doing, there is an american institute in Paris ; may-be the embassy would give you some adresses ; I know there are many Americans in France in spite of the freedom-fried attempt ; even in province, there is a few of them that own a house.But the more we have are the Britishs, they own fost our old houses., So, if you come in France, I am sure you'll find many people that can understand you :lol:

Don S on :

I am an IT consultant. I browse internet job sites - most of the advertisments for positions located in France are written in French - which sends a definate message! The other countries which frequently does that are Switzerland and Germany, and much less frequently.

franchie on :

well, a priori that looks a bit difficult as there are many frenchs who can do the same job ; though their are lots of companies that deal with the foreign countries with the english language ; anyway, it's not much difficult to go to Paris from time to time, the "Eurostar" does that very quickly

joe on :

Don, Thanks. I tried that last night and did not get a hit. I also did site searches. If you are a student of warfare, military history, tactics and strategy, etc, you will find lots of examples of where doctrine does not match the on the ground situation. A large part of this has to do with resource limitations and the real facts of “lessons learned” as they are incorporated into doctrine. Probably the best example of this is an analysis of combat and combat service support within the US Army. From a doctrinal standpoint a tooth to tail ratio of 1 to 9 has proven to be the most effective. BTY as you may know logistics are more important than tactics once the shooting starts. Given the end strength limitations imposed on the US Army as a results of the Clinton draw down some difficult decisions were made about what the force structure would look like going forward realizing of course that DOD said that it was short a minimum of two full army divisions and requisite support formations. (You might have seen this number in the last few years.) So decisions to reduce and move transportation units to AR and ANG were made as was the case of civil affairs and a great number of other capabilities. Most of these shortfalls have been well highlighted by M$M. It is much easier to move stuff via a contractor than it is get an off the shelf infantryman. For those nations that actual have doctrine, I am unaware of any of them conducting sustained combat operations, which complied with their published doctrine. If you should find one, I think it would make interesting reading. But you can be assured commanders everywhere and at all levels never have enough resources or time. The other thing interesting about doctrine is it seems to get lost for a period of time and then reinvents itself. If I were SECDEF for a day, I would be standing up an organization for Iraq much like the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam. MACV and the 5th SFG were probably the greatest force multipliers deployed.

Don S on :

"If you are a student of warfare, military history, tactics and strategy, etc, you will find lots of examples of where doctrine does not match the on the ground situation. A large part of this has to do with resource limitations and the real facts of “lessons learned” as they are incorporated into doctrine." Yep. "Most battle plans don't survive contact with the enemy", correct? That's why you need flexible plans and initiative at lower tactical levels, and good communications and recon - to adjust to the actual situation quicker than the enemy, no? "Probably the best example of this is an analysis of combat and combat service support within the US Army. From a doctrinal standpoint a tooth to tail ratio of 1 to 9 has proven to be the most effective. BTY as you may know logistics are more important than tactics once the shooting starts." "Amateurs study tactics, professionals study logistics." I wasn't cheap-shotting you with the reference, just providing information - and pointing out that the journalist was cherry-picking his facts and quoting the general in a dishonest manner.

Don S on :

"Given the end strength limitations imposed on the US Army as a results of the Clinton draw down some difficult decisions were made about what the force structure would look like going forward" True, but compared to the cutbacks which most European NATO members did Clinton looks like Attila the Hun by comparison, no? No doubt due to the malefic influence of the Joint Chiefs and vicious warmongering baby-killers like Senator Jesse Helms of course.... ;)

joe on :

Don, M$M has a template. The 400,000 fit very nicely.

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