The American Legion Magazine | 11.1.08
ProQuest | 2009
By Alan W. Dowd

For the third time in a decade, NATO is tweaking its mission and membership roster in response to new challenges. The headlines from NATO’s recent summit in Bucharest include:

  • Formal membership invitations to Croatia and Albania, although Macedonia’s invitation was deferred due to objections from Greece over the country’ official name;
  • A promise of membership to Georgia and Ukraine, although action plans weren't offered due to concerns from France and Germany (which Moscow may have taken as a green light);
  • An endorsement of the U.S.-led international missile defense system (IMD);
  • A commitment to stabilize Afghanistan by sharing burdens and providing military commanders with the tools, troops and flexibility they need to prevail.[i]

Of course, we’ve heard similar promises before. Past summits have trumpeted NATO’s commitment to improve unwieldy command structures, develop new capabilities, and ensure that the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan (ISAF) “has forces, resources, and flexibility needed to ensure the mission’s continued success.”[ii] These promises have not been kept.

Indeed, after doing one thing—and one thing well—for its first 40 years, the alliance now seems to be a work in progress. Perhaps this is because the world is changing so fast—or perhaps it’s because NATO’s record of late is decidedly mixed.

Caveat Emptor: Allies Beware

First, the good news: In 1999, NATO adopted a plan to stabilize Eastern Europe and “build an undivided continent.”

That vision for post-Cold War Europe has been largely fulfilled. NATO offered security to the orphan states between Russia’s receding empire and the West, smothered Slobodan Milosevic’s wars, and gave Europe time to rebuild the links that were sundered by the Iron Curtain. Thriving with commerce, free from the threat of war and unblemished by occupation, today’s Europe is unrecognizable from the one we knew in 1989. And NATO deserves much of the credit.

NATO’s Afghanistan mission is another story.

Six years after NATO joined the battle for Afghanistan, the war-torn country is no longer under the control of the medieval Taliban and its al-Qaeda partners. The bad news is that it doesn’t appear Afghanistan is under anyone’s control.

NATO’s 47,000 troops in Afghanistan are doing their best. Regrettably, the same cannot be said of some of their governments.

Many European members of NATO have been under-resourcing ISAF from the very beginning. This is partly a function of their inadequate investment in defense. While the U.S. spends about four percent of its GDP on defense—a GDP that is enormous compared to that of Europe’s largest economies—France invests just 2.6 percent of GDP, Italy 1.8 percent and Germany 1.5 percent. Britain invests only 2.2 percent of GDP on defense—“its lowest level since the 1930s,” as the Heritage Foundation’s Nile Gardiner observes.

In fact, only seven of NATO’s 26 members have mustered the will to meet the alliance’s standard of investing two percent of GDP on defense. 

The consequence: Most NATO members have to hitch a ride with the U.S. Air Force or rent Soviet-era transports to deploy troops and equipment to Afghanistan. They lack helicopters to move within Afghanistan. They “are not trained in counterinsurgency,” in the blunt words of Defense Secretary Robert Gates. And they aren’t fulfilling their troop commitments. Alliance members only contributed 85 percent of the forces they pledged to ISAF in 2006.

Not much has changed since then. In fact, Canada threatened to withdraw its 2,500 troops if NATO failed to muster a thousand more personnel for operations in Afghanistan’s restive south. However, Bucharest cajoled some allies into action: France is sending 1,000 additional troops; Britain is sending 800 more; and Poland is deploying another 400.[iii]

But that only solves part of the problem. ISAF still faces a troop shortfall, and NATO still allows members with military forces in Afghanistan to opt out of certain missions. These “caveats,” as they are euphemistically called, make it difficult to field an effective combat force—and strike at the very heart of the alliance’s cohesiveness. After all, an ally that promises to help only when the guns are quiet and only where the scenery is serene is not much of an ally.  

Yet that is an accurate description of what some allies—like Germany—are doing by steering clear of southern Afghanistan.

“We must not—we cannot—become a two-tiered alliance of those who are willing to fight and those who are not,” Gates warned earlier this year, adding that such a development “would in effect destroy the alliance.”

The Will To Prevail

Perhaps the most disheartening aspect of the failure of major European nations to send more troops to Afghanistan—and to send them with no strings attached—is the fact that NATO’s European contingent fields some 2.3 million active-duty troops and another 3.04 million reserves.[iv] The U.S., by comparison, has 1.4 million troops on active duty and less than a million reserves.

In other words, it’s a matter of will. As several retired NATO generals grimly conclude, NATO “lacks capabilities, and its constituent nations are showing a marked lack of will for it to prevail.” In fact, the generals are so concerned that they issued a paper on the eve of the Bucharest Summit calling for sweeping reforms.[v]

“A NATO without profound reform,” the generals warn, “will not be the instrument we need at this time or in the future.”

  • They propose the “abolition of the system of national caveats.”
  • They recommend that NATO jettison consensus-based decision-making at the operational level in favor of majority voting to “enable NATO to take quick decisions in crises, when minutes matter.”
  • “Only those nations that contribute to a mission—that is, military forces in a military operation—should have the right to a say in the process of the operation,” they conclude.
  • They implore European governments to end “obstruction of EU-NATO cooperation.”
  • They call on NATO to develop new ways to fund lengthy operations and to maintain the option of preemptive and even preventive war.

Along with these reforms, there must be a renewed awareness on the part of governments and populations alike that NATO is not keeping peace in Afghanistan, but waging war—a counterinsurgency war in one of the most hostile and remote places on earth.

NATO’s fighting forces know they’re at war. After almost seven years in Afghanistan, NATO has lost 552 Americans, 110 Britons, 87 Canadians, 22 Germans, 16 Dutch, 14 Danes, 12 French, 11 Italians, and a handful of others.

Combat deaths should never be taken lightly. The debt we owe to the fallen is immeasurable because we may never know what their sacrifice has thwarted. But to put these numbers in perspective:

  • On a single day in June 1944, the allies lost 2,500 men at Normandy.
  • Air Force Magazine notes that 77 allies were killed during the Berlin Airlift. Most of them were Europeans. 
  • The Falklands War claimed 255 British troops—in 74 days.
  • The Europe Defense Veterans of America estimates that 5,000 allied personnel “were wounded, missing, lost or died in service to NATO during the Cold War.”

NATO’s Future and America’s Security

Given all the headaches and half-measures, is NATO still worth America’s time, trouble and treasure? Yes.

From Kosovo to Kandahar, the past decade reminds us that alliance warfare is never easy, but it’s preferable to the alternative—fighting alone. And thanks to NATO, America has not been alone in its campaign against terror.

Immediately after 9/11, Europe became a key jumping-off point for the war on terror. Operations in the Middle East, Central Asia, Africa and beyond depend on NATO infrastructure in places like Lakenheath, Ramstein, Aviano and Incirlik. As the reform-minded generals conclude, “there is no hope for the U.S. to sustain its role as the world’s sole superpower without the Europeans as allies.”

In 2002, NATO agreed to join the global fight against terrorism. That drew the alliance into Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa, to varying degrees. On top of this, NATO has added new missions—such as tackling cyber-defense and deploying missile defenses—and continues to shoulder old missions—such as stabilizing the Balkans and keeping an eye on Moscow.

These missions are cumulative. The alliance does not complete one and start another. Instead, it continues to defend Europe, and pacify the Balkans, and fight the Taliban, and deploy IMD, and secure the vast reaches of cyberspace.

In other words, the demands placed upon NATO are increasing—in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Those who say Afghanistan is NATO’s Waterloo forget that equally dire diagnoses were made when NATO watched Yugoslavia tear itself apart in the 1990s, when the U.S deployed Pershing missiles in 1983, and when France withdrew from NATO’s military command in 1966.

As historian Derek Leebaert has observed, NATO was always said to be in disarray. “Decade in, decade, out,” he writes in The Fifty Year Wound, the alliance was forever “at the crossroads.” 

Yet it has found a way to survive. The reason for this is simple. Despite all its shortcomings, NATO serves an important purpose for its most important member: the United States.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, NATO has evolved into a readymade structure where Washington can build military coalitions of the willing. These alliances within the alliance helped the U.S. liberate Kuwait, defend Saudi Arabia, wage war and keep peace in the Balkans, take down the medieval Taliban and topple Saddam’s regime.

President George W. Bush sees NATO’s mission in Afghanistan as the beginning of “an expeditionary alliance.” Some observers have even raised the prospect of transforming NATO into a global security organization. In fact, NATO has special partnerships with Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea. Beyond Afghanistan, NATO is already at work:

  • Along Europe’s frontier. From the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, the alliance is patching up old wounds. NATO’s invitations to Albania and Croatia, pending invitation to Macedonia, 16,000-man peacekeeping force in Kosovo, and entreaties to Serbia are proof of its determination to make Europe whole again. And as Russia's thrust into Georgia proves, only NATO can stabilize Ukraine, Georgia and Europe’s borderlands.
  • In Africa. NATO is supporting African Union (AU) peacekeepers with training and transportation, airlifting more than 31,000 AU peacekeepers since 2005.
  • On the high seas. Built around a strong NATO core, the Proliferation Security Initiative is an ongoing naval interdiction operation that enfolds some 80 nations committed to intercepting weapons of mass destruction and their precursors while in transit. Likewise, under Operation Active Endeavor, NATO navies patrol the Mediterranean to deter terrorist activity. To date, they have monitored 81,000 ships, boarded 102 suspicious vessels and provided escorts to 488.[vi] 
  • In the Middle East. NATO has trained 10,000 Iraqi security forces and plans to train Iraqi navy, air force, police and border-patrol units. NATO is providing Iraq with new equipment. And NATO is in the process of developing what the alliance calls “a long-term relationship with Iraq.” To Iraq’s west, NATO is helping Jordan with unexploded ordnance detection and removal. And to Iraq’s east, as Iran stymies the UN Security Council, it’s not hard to imagine a scenario involving a NATO-led embargo, NATO naval interdiction operations and even NATO airstrikes. 

Mind Your Business

In 1993, when NATO leaders were debating whether or not to intervene in the Balkans, Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) predicted that NATO would either “go out of area or out of business.” In other words, the middle-aged alliance would have to reorient itself for new missions outside what NATO’s founding document calls the “North Atlantic area.”

NATO heeded Lugar’s counsel and cautiously intervened in Yugoslavia. Fifteen years later, it appears NATO has more “business” than it can handle. But to extend Lugar’s metaphor, NATO’s board of directors need to invest more in human resources and training, acquire new equipment, and refine their mission if they hope to keep pace with the challenges of today—and tomorrow.

[i] NATO Heads of State, BucharestSummit Declaration, April 3, 2008.

[ii] See NATO Heads of State, PragueSummit Declaration, November 21, 2002; NATO Heads of State, RigaSummit Declaration, November 29, 2006.

[iii] Peter Baker and Ann Scott Tyson, “Bush to meet NATO allies over adding troops in Afghanistan,” The Washington Post, March 31, 2008.

[iv] STEPHEN J. COONEN, “The Widening Military Capabilities Gap between the United States and Europe: Does it Matter?” Parameters, Autumn 2006.

[v] All quotes referring to these generals taken from Gen. John Shalikashvili, Gen. Klaus Naumann, Gen. Henk van den Breemen, Adm. Jacques Lanxade, and Field Marshall Peter Inge, “Towards a Grand Strategy for an Uncertain World,” Center for Security and International Studies, 2008.

[vi] David McKeeby, "NATO’s “Active Endeavor” Operation Safeguards the Mediterranean," America.gov, November 7, 2006.