NATO Must Reform or Become Irrelevant

By: Greg C. Reeson

In 1949, not long after the conclusion of the Second World War, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was created “…to safeguard the freedom and security of its member countries by political and military means.” It has been nearly sixty years since its founding, and the once proud western alliance that stood its ground against the mighty Soviet Union during the Cold War is now facing the prospect of irrelevance when it comes to dealing with global security issues.

The problem with NATO can be summed up in one word: Afghanistan. After the United States was attacked by al-Qaeda terrorists on September 11, 2001, NATO for the first time in its history invoked Article V of its charter, stating unequivocally that the attack on America was an attack on all NATO member nations. Despite solid support from NATO countries for the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan more than six years ago, the alliance has struggled since assuming control of the more than 40,000 troops that make up the International Security Assistance Force to prosecute the war against a resurgent Taliban and remaining al-Qaeda fighters. Much of the trouble has been experienced in the south of the country, where British, Canadian, and Dutch soldiers have borne most of the combat burden. Now it seems at least one NATO country has had enough.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Monday that Canada would only extend its military commitment to NATO’s Afghanistan operation if another NATO member agreed to deploy more troops to the south to fight an increasingly resilient insurgency. Harper’s comment was a follow-up to a recommendation made last week by an independent panel urging withdrawal of Canada’s 2,500 troops from Afghanistan when their mission authorization expires next year, unless additional forces are provided in the south by one or more other NATO member states.

Canada is expressing the same frustration with European allies that the United States has been feeling since U.S. Marine Corps General James Jones called on NATO to send additional troops to Afghanistan in 2006. Then, NATO countries responded that they were already stretched too thin with ongoing commitments to other global efforts. Now, the chief complaint is that too many nations impose national caveats on their troops, caveats that hinder NATO operations and limit the ability of commanders on the ground to successfully prosecute the war.

National caveats effectively place restrictions on how and where contributed forces are allowed to deploy and engage the enemy. So far, many European nations have been reluctant to allow their troops into combat, especially in the south, relegating critically needed forces to support roles in relatively safe areas of the country. Caveats and symbolic troop contributions, in some cases fewer than ten personnel, are a real problem because they allow NATO members to take credit for participating in the Afghan operation without incurring any real risk.

NATO will have to address this problem if it is going to remain a viable defense alliance. Two immediate reform measures should be undertaken. First, NATO should end the practice of national caveats for those member states participating in NATO operations. The allowance of national caveats not only forces commanders to abide by restrictions that could potentially put an entire operation at risk, it unfairly puts the burden of combat on a select few. Second, NATO should not allow input into decision-making from member states that are not participating in a given mission. Simply put, if you won’t play, you don’t have a say. Only states willing to contribute to an operation should be allowed a voice at the table.

NATO officials are scheduled to meet in Bucharest, Romania just over two months from now in a summit forum that will provide a golden opportunity to address the alliance’s Afghanistan challenges. Unfortunately, problems with troop contributions and national caveats will likely be overshadowed by discussions on NATO enlargement. Enlargement of the alliance is important, especially in areas where NATO can extend its buffer with a resurgent Russia (the United States is expected to propose membership invitations for Albania, Croatia, and Macedonia). But enlargement deals with the future and NATO has more immediate concerns to address in the present.

NATO’s reputation is at stake in Afghanistan. Lagging troop contributions and national limitations on the use of forces are creating frictions among member states that could result in an organizational fracture. If NATO countries cannot come together to finish the job in Afghanistan, the ability of the alliance to deal with future threats to stability, like a unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo, is in serious doubt.

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