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The state of NATO
The state of NATO
A ray of light in the dark defile
Mar 27th 2008 | BRUSSELS
From The Economist print edition
The Western alliance is in trouble in Afghanistan. But France is ready to help take on the Taliban, and others still want to join NATO
ANOTHER fighting season beckons in Afghanistan, and the strain is beginning to tell. Many European countries are weary of the war, America is growing tired of reluctant allies and Afghans are becoming disenchanted. Still, NATO says it retains the initiative: the Taliban have been forced to abandon set-piece battles in favour of “asymmetric” suicide-bombs.
This is brave talk. Last year was the bloodiest yet, with more than 230 Western soldiers killed. Opium-poppy production is at a record high, financing the Taliban and corrupting the government in Kabul. The old truth of counter-insurgency still holds: armies can win every battle, yet lose the will to fight an intractable war.
Paddy Ashdown, the British politician and ex-commando who was nearly appointed as the United Nations' envoy to Kabul, makes the point by quoting “Arithmetic on the Frontier”, a poem by Rudyard Kipling describing the British empire's troubles fighting Afghan tribesmen armed with the jezail, a home-made musket:
A scrimmage in a Border Station
A canter down some dark defile
Two thousand pounds of education
Drops to a ten-rupee jezail.
In such a fight against a weaker but elusive enemy, says Kipling, “the odds are on the cheaper man”. Indeed, a recent report overseen by General James Jones, formerly NATO's supreme military commander, declares: “Make no mistake, NATO is not winning in Afghanistan.” Failure, the report says, will “put in grave jeopardy NATO's future as a credible, cohesive and relevant military alliance”.
As NATO leaders gather in Bucharest next week, Robert Gates, America's defence secretary, has given warning that NATO could become a two-tier alliance with “some allies willing to fight and die to protect people's security, and others who are not”. The cost in blood and treasure is being borne mainly by the Americans, British, Canadians and Dutch. But the Dutch (together with the Italians and Germans) have wobbled, and the Canadians say they will remain only if another ally sends 1,000 troops to join them in Kandahar. It is left to America, despite its commitments in Iraq, to put up most of the fighting power in Afghanistan, do most of the training of Afghan forces and provide the bulk of economic aid. It is now deploying some 3,000 more marines.
But out of the gloom comes some hope, in the dashing form of Nicolas Sarkozy. Despite the Bush administration's unpopularity in Europe, the French president has gone out of his way to befriend America and wants France to rejoin NATO's integrated military structure, from which de Gaulle withdrew in 1966. Even better, French forces hitherto deployed in Kabul seem ready to fight the Taliban. Mr Sarkozy is expected to announce in Bucharest the deployment of about 1,000 French soldiers alongside the Americans in eastern Afghanistan. This would release some American forces to move to Kandahar, keep the Canadians in Afghanistan and, perhaps, encourage others to do more.
A further measure of support may come from another unexpected quarter: Russia. For all the Kremlin's rage about NATO enlargement and American missile defences in Europe, President Vladimir Putin has been invited to Bucharest, where he may sign an agreement opening up air and land routes through Russia to supply NATO forces in Afghanistan.
If all this happens, NATO may not look quite so embattled. The arrival of American and French troops will, for a while at least, fill much of the shortfall in the forces requested by the local NATO commander. That said, Afghanistan is still short of soldiers (and of trainers embedded with Afghan troops). The surge in Iraq shows that numbers can make a difference.
Plainly, America and Europe do not share the same commitment to Afghanistan; America considers itself to be at war. But they also have vastly different military means. Although Europe has a larger GDP than America, and more soldiers, its global military punch is puny. America spends roughly 4% of GDP on defence, while just five of the 24 European allies—Britain, France, Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria—meet NATO's minimum defence-spending target of 2% of GDP. America has designed its forces for expeditionary warfare, while most European armies are still configured to defend their own borders.
Within Europe, only Britain and France (both nuclear powers) have a tradition of wielding military force far afield. But these days both are struggling with overstretched equipment budgets. Whether because of national pride, incompatible priorities or the desire to prop up domestic industries, European defence spending is fragmented and duplicative. A study for the European Parliament in 2006 found that Europeans operate four models of tanks, compared with one in America; 16 kinds of armoured vehicles compared with three American ones; 11 types of frigates versus one in America. The NATO Response Force (NRF), a 25,000-strong package of land, sea and air contingents meant to be ready for action at five days' notice, was supposed to help transform static European armies into nimbler forces. But barely a year after the NRF was declared operational, NATO admits the Europeans are too stretched to meet its requirements.
With deployments in the Balkans, the Middle East and Africa, many European countries are close to the limit of what they can sustain in terms of overseas operations. A NATO source reckons that, short of all-out war, only 10,000 more troops can be squeezed out of Europe. Helicopters fit for war zones are scarce everywhere. Any hope of a big increase in military resources in Afghanistan must await a reduction of American forces in Iraq.
That said, American officials see France's return to the fold as a “gigantic opportunity”. NATO debates have long been a miserable mixture of French stubbornness and American frustration. America regarded the European Union's attempt to develop its own security and defence arm as wasteful, if not an attempt to split NATO. At the “Praline summit” in April 2003, at the height of the crisis over the Iraq war, France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg announced plans to create a separate EU operational headquarters in Tervuren, near Brussels. Britain and other Atlanticists blocked this, seeing it as a rival to NATO's vast Supreme Headquarters Allied Power Europe (SHAPE).
Now the mood has changed. Instead of getting a reflexive French non, American ideas tend to be greeted with peut-être. NATO meetings have been transformed from highly charged confrontations into meetings that, in the words of one diplomat, “are as boring as Sunday mass”.
Still, joining NATO's integrated military structure is harder than leaving it. The previous French attempt to regain a place at the top table of military planning collapsed in 1996, partly because France bid too high for senior commands. This time there is, as yet, no horse-trading over NATO jobs. Instead Mr Sarkozy seeks a political trade-off: American support for expanding the EU's security role.
America, too, is undergoing what senior NATO officials call a “Copernican revolution”. It now appears convinced by Mr Sarkozy's assurance that a stronger EU defence policy would complement rather than supplant NATO. In two striking speeches in Paris and London earlier this year, Victoria Nuland, the American ambassador to NATO, argued that far from being a threat, the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) was an urgent necessity. “Europe needs, the United States needs, NATO needs, the democratic world needs—a stronger, more capable European capacity,” she said. “An ESDP with only soft power is not enough.” If Europeans spent more on their own defence, she added, their troops would be more useful when deployed with Americans.
The Franco-American courtship leaves Britain looking oddly out of place, not least because it is hobbled by the effort to ratify the EU's Lisbon treaty. Britain helped launch ESDP in 1998, but these days it is seen by the Eurocrats as the biggest obstacle to an autonomous EU defence policy. Partly at America's behest, Britain has denied the EU all but a small staff for “strategic” planning, and has squeezed the budget of the European Defence Agency, whose job is to rationalise European defence procurement. Now Britain is being encouraged by America to reverse course.
France would like to relaunch Europe's defence ambitions during its six-month presidency of the EU, which starts in July. This, in turn, could allow it to rejoin NATO's integrated military structure in time for NATO's 60th anniversary summit in 2009. Mr Sarkozy told Britain's Parliament this week that he wanted a “brotherhood” and hoped to abandon “theological” debates over defence. But, perhaps mindful of Britain's sensitivity over further integration, he avoided going into detail—and that is where the problems will arise. Time is running out. France has yet to present firm ideas, and its own defence review is not yet complete.
The lessons of Afghanistan
Realising the limits of America's military power, Pentagon officials nowadays say that the only thing worse than fighting a war with allies is fighting one without them. In Afghanistan, moreover, the problem is not just the strength of the Taliban but also the weakness of the Afghan state.
The 82nd Airborne division, which the Bush administration once said should not be wasted on escorting schoolchildren, is now building schools, refurbishing mosques and doing other “armed social work”. Commanders say what they need most urgently is more non-military muscle: agricultural experts, vets, even anthropologists. Mr Gates must be the only defence minister who lobbies for money for diplomats and aid workers.
Armies, aid donors and international agencies in Afghanistan often work at cross-purposes—for instance, building schools without enough teachers. One attempt to give direction to this dysfunctional reconstruction effort was the expected appointment of Lord Ashdown as the UN representative in Kabul. President Hamid Karzai, though, seemed to regard the former international supremo in Bosnia as the embodiment of a British viceroy, and blocked his nomination. Kai Eide, a respected but low-key Norwegian diplomat, has now been appointed.
Addressing a seminar at Policy Exchange, a London think-tank, Mr Ashdown summed up the problem thus: “We will not beat the Taliban. Those who will beat the Taliban are the Afghan people. If we do not win their support in the process we cannot win.”
The question of how best to meld military with civilian tools—“the comprehensive approach”, as many call it—occupies the minds of strategists on both sides of the Atlantic. America and Britain are planning to build a “reserve” of civilian experts who can be sent out to help the soldiers.
In this light, the EU starts to look more attractive to America. The union already combines economic aid with anti-corruption training, police and gendarmerie-style missions, election monitoring and other tools useful for state-building. The EU is currently running or planning 12 ESDP operations around the world, most of them small police and rule-of-law missions. Its military ambitions, though, are growing. The EU runs the peacekeeping force in Bosnia and, after much trouble finding troops and equipment, is sending 3,700 soldiers to Chad to police the border with Darfur.
It has also set up a rotation of battlegroups—quick-reaction forces of about 1,500 men. Some contingents, such as the Nordic battlegroup, are a model of integration. They may be small, but many experts think the battlegroups are a more useful tool for crisis management than NATO's hard-punching response force.
Europe's awkward shape
America wants to tap into these resources, and seems ready to reconsider the taboo against a separate European operational headquarters. Ms Nuland has suggested creating a new headquarters to plan civil-military missions “as a NATO-EU family”. But she is careful to recognise that Europe “needs a place where it can act independently”. British officials speak of attaching such a body to SHAPE, giving it a NATO label. Some Americans propose trimming NATO's top-heavy structure and converting one of its commands—perhaps the headquarters at Brunssum in the Netherlands that oversees Afghanistan. EU officials retort that, if the aim is to harness non-military skills, it would be best to put the HQ in Brussels, next to EU institutions. Hervé Morin, the French defence minister, says Europe must have military clout, and not be “the civilian branch of NATO.”
NATO and the EU are, in many ways, two limbs of the same body. The clubs have 21 members in common, and are both headquartered in Brussels. The EU developed under NATO's protection and, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the integration of former communist states has been a joint venture: membership of NATO has usually preceded joining the EU.
But like ill-fitting gears, the two bodies jar against each other. Fixing the relationship with America only highlights other blockages, such as the dispute over the divided island of Cyprus and Turkey's place in Europe. The Cypriot government tries to exclude Turkey from European defence bodies, while Turkey forbids NATO from meeting the EU if Cyprus is represented—as the EU usually insists.
The result is a dangerous absurdity. NATO and the EU speak only about Bosnia. NATO does not formally offer protection to the EU's police mission in Afghanistan, though many countries contribute to both. In Kosovo, too, there is no agreement between NATO peacekeepers and the incoming EU rule-of-law mission that is supposed to be taking over many of the UN's functions. The two sides co-operate informally, but key documents such as intelligence assessments can only be exchanged “under the table”. The election of a new president in Cyprus and the promise of renewed peace talks may lubricate contact between the bureaucracies. But for as long as Turkey's membership of the EU is in doubt, there will be more breakdowns.
The borders of Europe are causing difficulty elsewhere. Albania and Croatia seem certain to be invited to join NATO at Bucharest, but Greece is holding up Macedonia's membership because of a dispute over the country's name. America wants to go further and extend NATO's “membership action plan” (a promise of future membership) to Ukraine and Georgia. America and ex-communist countries see this as a means of stabilising emerging democracies. But Germany is leading the resistance, arguing that Ukrainian opinion is dangerously divided about NATO. Georgia's democratic credentials, moreover, have been questionable of late, while territorial disputes over Abkhazia and South Ossetia remain unresolved.
The Kremlin regards NATO's expansion as an affront, particularly when it encroaches on chunks of the former Soviet Union. Germany and several other European countries are wary of riling Russia at a time when the presidency is being transferred from Mr Putin to Dmitry Medvedev (although the new man seems no less suspicious of NATO). The alliance says that outsiders have “no veto” on its decisions. That said, few members relish the idea of extending NATO's promise of mutual defence to countries that could drag them into direct confrontation with Russia.
Mr Putin will be an awkward guest at NATO's party. He has done much to stoke fears of a new cold war, especially since a speech at Munich last year accused America of having “overstepped its national borders in every way”. He has suppressed democracy at home and acted more aggressively abroad. Long-range bombers once again lurk close to NATOcountries, and the rust is being taken off other bits of Russia's military machine.
Russia has suspended the treaty limiting conventional forces in Europe. And it has threatened to target nuclear missiles at Poland and the Czech Republic if they agree to host America's missile defences. Russia has used oil and gas as a political weapon, periodically cutting off fuel supplies to neighbours. Increasingly it plays the spoiler on several issues of European interest, from the independence of Kosovo to sanctions against Iran.
Mr Putin has sent an abrasive nationalist, Dmitry Rogozin, as his ambassador to NATO. Mr Rogozin's office, in a faraway corner of the NATO compound, is decorated with a Soviet-era poster of Stalin leading the tanks of the victorious Red Army. He says Russia wants good relations, but NATO has abused its friendship. “We made peace with our neighbour,” he explains. “Then he says, ‘Is it all right if I use your garage?’ Then he says, ‘Is it a problem if my friend lives in your place?’ Then he says, ‘Do you mind if I sleep with your wife?’ When we protest, we are told we have no right of veto.”
Western diplomats argue that Russia's bullying tactics are backfiring, forcing Europeans into adopting a more assertive stand. Russia may still be a long way from posing a conventional military threat to NATO, although it does scare its immediate neighbours, such as the Baltic states. Even once-neutral Finland and Sweden are talking of joining NATO.
There will be much talk in Bucharest of NATO's need to reinvent itself by drawing up a new “strategic concept”. But despite NATO's troubles in Afghanistan, and even the possibility of failure, Russia's snarling may yet provide the clearest reason for the allies to stick together.