NATO’s Afghan Report Card

STEN RYNNING — NATO earns a score of 6/10 for its cohesion, but only a 3/10 for strategic management. This assessment illuminates a stark contrast between the Alliance’s military successes and political disappointments. 

After the September 11, 2001 attacks, US President Bush invoked Article 5 of the Washington Treaty for the first time in its history. This invocation hinged on the acceptance that 9/11 presented an attack on a NATO member state by a foreign power: Al Qaeda. How did NATO leaders understand transnational terrorism at the beginning of the twenty-first century?

Up to that point, leaders had not considered terrorism as a central threat to NATO security. They had defined it as a strategic perspective in their 1999 Strategic Concept of which they had to be aware, but it was not a fundamental task in the NATO hierarchy. When the attacks on September 11, 2001 happened, the key question was not the finer details of the Strategic Concept but rather whether the attack fell under Article 5 of the Treaty. NATO leaders decided very quickly — within twelve hours — that it did insofar as the attack came from abroad by a hostile power. That determination left the question of whether the attack was an armed attack, which one might argue it was not; it was a civilian-type terrorist attack. NATO quickly agreed that it was armed, though, arguing that each airplane was used as a kind of missile.

Afghanistan presented NATO with a prolonged counterinsurgency campaign rather than the pitched-battle scenario for which it was designed. This situation has led to what NATO itself has labeled “the most fundamental changes in its history.” What have been the most important changes since 2001?

The most important change was provoked by the realization that NATO was actually fighting a real war in Afghanistan, that it was losing, and that even the world’s mightiest alliance may risk its own life in Afghanistan. This realization set in around the years 2006-2008, when NATO forces fanned out into some of the most difficult regions in Afghanistan. What this realization has sparked in NATO is a search for an alliance that is able to deal with operations much more comprehensively than it had been able to do previously, one that can deal with both military and political and civilian dimensions of conflict.

In my view, NATO has yet to come up with the right answer to this challenge. They are aware of it, and are working on it, but they are still searching. The temptation is to search for other organizations to conduct the political and civilian work of the operation, and have NATO stick to its military role. This method is what NATO leaders call the “comprehensive approach.” What has happened in Afghanistan is that this approach has not worked because the other organizations tasked with the “softer” side of operations — like the United Nations and the European Union — have failed to deliver, leaving NATO with a deficit in terms of politics and civilian affairs.

In the months following the outbreak of hostilities in Afghanistan, it seemed that the United States was reluctant to call for NATO military assistance, preferring to command operations themselves. How has the US come to rely on — or to a greater degree incorporate — Alliance capabilities in Afghanistan, especially through the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)?

The initial United States approach to NATO was to use it as a framework for making bilateral agreements. Following the Article 5 declaration, the US decided to agree to coordinate with specific other NATO nations: Germany, France, Britain, and so on. NATO’s twin pillars — the North Atlantic Council and the NATO Command Structure — were not activated. Effectively, NATO itself was not activated immediately after 9/11.

What then happened was that the US turned its priorities elsewhere — namely to Iraq — and needed allies to step into the Afghan void, a need filled through ISAF running parallel to the US-led coalition operation. As ISAF grew bigger it became convenient to have NATO allies step into a leadership position. The trouble that was still hindering the campaign was that the American Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and ISAF were pursuing different objectives. One was chasing bandits and the other was supporting the Karzai government. On the ground, both sides were not always acting in support of one another. For a while leaders on both sides had to deal with this confusion, but soon American leaders realized that they needed to cooperate better with ISAF commanders, especially while a great deal of US resources were tied up in Iraq.

The second reason why the US has needed NATO was that as the it moved beyond the Iraqi surge in 2007 — and became more able to focus on what US President Barak Obama had described as the “war of necessity” — American leaders realized that they were going to surge in Afghanistan, and that the US footprint would grow bigger. Yet at the same time they did not want to Americanize the war. Getting Alliance buy-in became imperative, and there was a sustained campaign to get NATO to match the US surge, to demonstrate to the international community that the Afghan War was a collective effort to support a new government and not an American imperial project. In this second round of US-NATO relations, the dialogue has been much better, unlike during the OEF-ISAF controversy. Both sides came together during the Afghanistan surge on the understanding that they were conducting a counterinsurgency campaign, and were to act together.

The NATO invocation of Article 5 signaled an unprecedented level of international solidarity with the US against terror. Has this solidarity been maintained in ISAF and NATO operations, and what fissures developed in the Alliance as a result of sustained combat?

There are two ways of looking at NATO in Afghanistan in terms of operations and Alliance solidarity. One is to attribute the friction since 2001 to the usual problem inherent to such an operation, the problem of a lack of mobility (forces in the North cannot assist their counterparts in the South, and those in the West cannot move East). There is in fact a real limit to operational solidarity as Alliance members often do not equip their forces for solidarity in action. Even if they had the capacities to cooperate, they would place caveats on the forces that effectively would prevent them from helping other allied troops. This discordance has been a significant problem, and has detracted from the positive view of the Alliance.

However, it is important to also give credit to an Alliance that has for a decade been able to undertake expeditionary operations in the most difficult of circumstances. Afghanistan is far from Europe, and is as crazy as it gets. NATO has remained fundamentally united throughout. From a scale from zero to ten, I would give NATO a score of six for solidarity.

Where the allies have lacked the critical ingredient of Alliance solidarity is at the political-strategic level: Defining why they are in Afghanistan. That is an incredibly difficult question, and NATO has chosen to simply say that they are there to support whatever the constitutional government does. This answer is not good enough; they have contracted out the most important part of the campaign. On the same scale from zero to ten, I would give them a score of three for strategic management of the campaign.

NATO’s operations in Afghanistan, most importantly ISAF, are regarded in a mixed light. What successes did the Alliance achieve there, and how were any victories colored by failures?

The overall victory of NATO — although I would be wary of putting the situation in those terms — has been that they have made a new government possible. The Taliban, tough strong even today, is not decisively powerful. The government is fairly legitimate, and has the ability to establish itself. Having said that, it is important to remember that the campaign has made its fair share of mistakes, most notably about whom to support in Kabul. But there is an argument to be made that NATO has made it possible for Afghans to choose a better future for themselves. Of course, NATO now tends to emphasize this narrative: They did what they could, and now it is up to the Afghans to define a positive future, and if they fail, it is Afghanistan’s fault. I am not saying that the international community should accept this narrative, but I do think that it is a major success that after all NATO got to this point.

The flip-side of the current situation is that NATO has not been able to seriously engage Karzai in a dialogue on what a transition of political office from current President Hamid Karzai to whoever comes after him would look like. Karzai has grown suspicious of NATO and the relationship almost broke during the fraudulent presidential elections in 2009. Ultimately NATO ended up with the worst of all outcomes, with a president they had heavily criticized but to which they had no alternative. They have been trying to repair this relationship ever since. In terms of dealing with the politics of government, NATO has not done very well.

NATO peacekeeping forces had been deployed to the Balkans in the 1990s to ameliorate internal conflicts. What lessons did NATO learn from these European experiences, and did commanders attempt to apply them to Afghanistan?

It learned some things in the Balkans, but not enough and not always the right things. The ability of NATO to work with other organizations — the UN or the EU, for instance — was sparked during the Balkans conflict, but it was not fully developed there. What it did bring to Afghanistan from the Balkans was the idea that it could essentially move in between belligerents, and act as a mediator, as a peacekeeper. Although NATO supported the Karzai government, there was a sense that it did not have an issue with the people who did not like the constitutional leaders in Kabul.

ISAF turned out to be different, and NATO was unprepared for the reality of war it encountered. The Alliance had become wired for mediation, not war, and thus for some years it tried to avoid the fact that the situation in Afghanistan was a war, and that it was necessary to fight this war with soldiers in uniform.


STEN RYNNING is Professor of Political Science at the University of Southern Denmark, and one of the world’s foremost experts on NATO. His most recent bookNATO in Afghanistan: The Liberal Disconnect, will be released this month by Stanford University Press.

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