European Affairs

The word that best describes this problem is “caveats,” the limitations that individual NATO nations place on the use of their forces, even when actually deployed in Afghanistan. All 26 NATO allies have forces there, in greater or lesser numbers, but not all allies are prepared to join in battle in the same way and to the same degree. As a result, the greatest burden of fighting, in the heavily-conflicted regions of the South and East, is being borne by only a few allies, notably the United States, the United Kingdom, Spain, the Netherlands, Denmark, Poland, Estonia and Canada, which has not suffered so many combat fatalities since the Korean war – 78 deaths so far. The caveats can take several forms, but two stand out. One involves the decision keeping an ally’s forces under tight control from the national capital even when they arrive in Afghanistan (instead of transferring them to the operational control of NATO commanders in theater): that caveat severely limits the ability to conduct a coherent tactical campaign since it often remains unclear at the planning stage which allies’ troops will be permitted to take part.

Even more significant are the national caveats regarding where in Afghanistan allied troops can be deployed. In effect, this determines whether these forces are available to be put where they are most needed – usually in harm’s way. Up to a point, this may be understandable for some of the smaller, less well-equipped and effective allied forces: they can still contribute usefully to the overall campaign – meeting garrison requirements and helping to staff the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). But several of the larger allies with more capable forces, notably France, Turkey, and Germany, are judged by ISAF’s commanders – and by the nations that are most engaged in the fighting – as failing to pull their weight. (France indicated this week that it will send troops to reinforce the Canadians in the combat zone in southern Afghanistan, but details remain to be worked out.)

The United States has taken the lead in trying to get NATO allies that have imposed caveats to abandon them or at least modify them sufficiently to provide more tactical flexibility for commanders. The effect would be to provide more forces that can be used anywhere and achieve a more equitable sharing of the common burden and risk. After all, when all 26 allies agreed that the alliance should become engaged in Afghanistan under a United Nations mandate, each had a veto and none exercised it. All must be aware that the alliance’s failure in Afghanistan, should that happen, will have an impact on Europe as much or more than on North America.

Germany and its caveats has been singled out by Washington for greatest attention, partly because this major member state of the alliance benefited so much from NATO solidarity in the cold war and partly because Berlin’s caveats have restricted deployment of Bundeswehr troops to service only in the north of Afghanistan, which sees far less combat than areas along the Pakistan border. The Germans counter that they have the third largest contingent of forces in Afghanistan, that the North is not entirely peaceful, that they have agreed to send forces where they are needed in extremis, and that the German government is limited by the Bundestag from doing more. In addition, they stress that some attention should be given to increasing German engagement in combat, at a slow but steady pace over recent years, especially when measured against the domestic and international political legacy of World War II on German opinion.

The impact of caveats on NATO-ISAF tactics in Afghanistan is not the only problem. From its inception, NATO’s political cohesion and hence effectiveness has been premised on shared risk. Indeed, the core provision of the North Atlantic Treaty – Article 5, which commits all allies to consider an attack on one as an attack on all – has never been successfully challenged by any adversary. The alliance has always relied for its effectiveness in part on the concept that, once a political decision to act is reached by consensus, all allies will support that decision. And NATO has never failed in anything it has agreed to do.

But Afghanistan has produced new questions and tests for the common understanding about shared risks as a core value of the alliance. True, there were some differentials during the Bosnia and Kosovo conflicts, when even after all allies had concurred in the military action NATO decided to carry out, only a few took part in actual combat operations. Some were inhibited for political reasons; more were constrained because they did not have the necessary high-performance aircraft, communications, and ordnance. (During the Kosovo War, warplanes from one nation’s Air Force had to be regularly vectored away from the battle space because they could do little good and might cause harm to themselves and other allies’ aircraft.)

But these actions in the Bosnia and Kosovo wars were vastly different from the current war in Afghanistan. Those wars were of limited duration (20 and 78 days respectively) and, for NATO, were conducted solely with airpower, with no allied combat fatalities. Indeed, one reason for relying solely on airpower was precisely to reduce the risks of allied casualties and thus the possibility that one or another ally would retreat from its commitment to support NATO action. Even so, the North Atlantic Council imposed a series of what were in fact caveats, by tightly constraining the targets that could be attacked and the ordnance used.

In Afghanistan, troops on the ground have suffered casualties, and the North Atlantic Council cannot hope to “micromanage” the conflict. The result has been a tension between the need for tactical flexibility and the desire of allies to limit casualties. Another and perhaps even more important tension has been between those countries ready to honor – on the ground – the “all for one and one for all” NATO tradition and those that are less ready to do so. This is one reason among several – including the nature and locus of future threats at some distance from Europe and the desirability of NATO’s becoming engaged in countering them – that the war in Afghanistan is of such consequence for the alliance. It is not just that continuing tensions between the combat-ready and the combat-reluctant allies could jeopardize future NATO military operations: the tensions could call into question the core value of the cohesion of the alliance. Bad blood between the two camps could have an impact measured far beyond issues related only to Afghanistan.

Given the political composition (often involving coalition governments) in allied nations – and the fact that Afghanistan is, obviously, a long way from Europe – there is no way to “square the circle” and eliminate caveats. NATO’s taking decisions to act as a whole has value in sending a signal to the people in allied nations, to friends elsewhere, and to potential adversaries that allied cohesion means something more than just a “coalition of the willing and able.” To protect that value, some limitations on what individual allies are prepared to do militarily in particular circumstances will have to be accepted. Even Article 5, the NATO cornerstone, does not commit allies to take any particular or collective military action, but only for each to consider by it own constitutional processes what it is prepared to do.

In addition to pressing allies to “think again” and to consider the impact on all allied nations if the venture in Afghanistan fails, there is also a need to consider a half-measure, as undesirable as it may be. This compromise could center on developing standards for compensation. Allies less able or willing to be engaged militarily – and which therefore impose caveats – could be asked to provide much greater resources and engagement in development and governance activities together with bigger contributions to PRTs. (This highlights another concern about Germany – its failure to live up to its commitment on Afghan police training, an area where it accepted the lead responsibility two years ago in the Compact for Afghanistan signed by nations meeting in London.) After all, these areas – the battleground for “hearts and minds” – will be decisive in the outcome in Afghanistan, as NATO’s military and civilian leadership has stressed repeatedly.

In a common idiom, military caveats are clearly a “lemon;” but if those nations that insist upon them will provide significant leadership, resources, and engagement in the non-military part of the Afghanistan campaign, there can still be “lemonade,” even if, for the allies that are suffering casualties, it is sour indeed. Reaching such a compromise is not only necessary tactically in Afghanistan; it may be the only way to prevent lasting damage to the NATO alliance.

Robert E. Hunter is a former U.S. ambassador to NATO and now senior advisor at the RAND Corporation.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 9, Issue number 1-2 in the Winter/Spring of 2008.