The South Asia Channel

The sound of silence

By Michael A. Innes As the U.S. has gone into high gear trying to decide what to do about Afghanistan, NATO itself has been conspicuously silent. The commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), Gen. Stanley McChrystal — for those who might not know — has two military chains of command that he’s responsible ...

579483_091012_stavras22.jpg


By Michael A. Innes

As the U.S. has gone into high gear trying to decide what to do about Afghanistan, NATO itself has been conspicuously silent. The commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), Gen. Stanley McChrystal — for those who might not know — has two military chains of command that he’s responsible to. One of them is exclusively American, via CENTCOM. The other is his NATO chain, which as far as the public is concerned, has been next to invisible over the last couple of weeks.

McChrystal’s NATO chain consists of two headquarters. The first is Joint Force Command (JFC) Brunssum, commanded by General Egon Ramms of the German Army. JFC Brunssum’s ISAF mission, according to its website, includes direct responsibility for long-term planning and support, as well as 24/7 monitoring and coordination of a complex array of ISAF related issues. The second is Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE), NATO’s strategic military headquarters commanded by U.S. Navy Adm. James Stavridis.

McChrystal reports through JFC Brunssum to Stavridis at SHAPE, who wears the grand title of Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR — pronounced “Sack-Yer”). U.S. National Security Advisor Gen. James Jones occupied the role until his retirement from the Marine Corps in 2006; Wesley Clark was SACEUR during the Kosovo campaign in the late 1990s. There have been more than a few exalted names assigned to the post, and theirs have more often than not been the faces of NATO when the organization has gone to war.

Stavridis has only been SACEUR for a few months, and has already made a mark as a diplomat and communicator, taking pains to open NATO up to social media like Facebook and Twitter, and even penning his own blog, “From the Bridge.” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has taken a similar approach with his own Facebook page, a Twitter account, and an official video blog, The Secretary General’s Corner.

Stavridis and Fogh Rasmussen have both been busy over the last two weeks, doing the usual circuit of meetings and official visits. Stavridis took the time to post “15 Things For Leaders” on his blog, and Fogh Rasmussen extended congratulations via official press release to U.S. President Barack Obama on his Nobel Peace Prize.

On the troops debate? Not so much. The absence of public commentary isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since NATO isn’t usually wont to publicly pass judgement on the internal politics of its member states. There are prominent exceptions, of course, like when it comes to paying the bill or national caveats on rules of engagement, for example. Stavridis is a U.S. officer, though, which makes steering clear of the troops debate a wise career move. There’s a big “however” to that: as the NATO representative on all things operational, he has a clear responsibility to the Alliance and to 27 other member states to speak out on issues that might concern even the least among them.

Or does he? At issue isn’t whether or not the discussion is happening. At Fogh Rasmussen’s most recent monthly press conference, on October 7, he briefly told those attending that “We are now in the process of studying General McChrystal’s assessment. This is under discussion in the Military Committee and in the NATO Council. These have been initial discussions, and we reached no conclusions yet… but I can say the exchange of views on approach has already begun.” Staff officers up and down the NATO chain of command have no doubt been burning the midnight oil, generating stacks of memoranda, point papers, and PowerPoint presentations on all aspects of a potential troop increase of such magnitude.

The real question is whether or not anyone in the NATO hierarchy besides McChrystal himself, who only really answers to Washington, should have engaged the public on the issue. What does it mean for the Alliance, for example, when the Supreme Allied Commander Europe takes the fifth? He is, after all, responsible for a lot more than just ISAF, so expecting him to weigh in on troop counts is probably unfair. And like any military officer, Stavridis has a duty to advise his superiors; if the apparent political frictions over McChrystal’s recent public appearances are any guide, he’ll stick to doing that through private and classified channels.

That’s understandable, even acceptable, but it comes at a cost in strategic communications and public diplomacy, particularly for an organization whose two most senior leaders have appeared so keen to interface with the public.

Throwing an additional 40,000 to 60,000 troops into the ISAF mission would be sure to radically alter things in Afghanistan, one way or the other. It’s possible that some of those forces, if they come at all, will hail from among the 28 NATO member states. It’s more likely that they would almost all come from the U.S., but the consequences that that kind of change precipitates won’t be limited to U.S. forces alone. A mission of ISAF’s scale, almost overwhelmingly resourced by a single member state, is sure to become an increasingly sensitive pressure point within the Alliance — generating more sticky questions about its character and relevance.

Michael A. Innes is a Visiting Research Fellow in the School of Politics and International Studies, University of Leeds, a Research and Practice Associate with the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism (INSCT) at Syracuse University, and a PhD candidate in political science at University College London. He blogs at Monkwire.

James Stavridis bids farewell to Anders Fogh Rasmussen. NATO 2009.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola