The South Asia Channel

Nearly Anywhere Terrorists Operate

By Michael Innes If the Obama Administration is serious about Afghanistan, it should leave NATO out of the equation. The organization has survived a Cold War, genocide in the Balkans, piracy off the horn of Africa, cigarette smuggling, human trafficking, WMD proliferation, transnational terrorism, and cyberwar. It has been called the "most successful Alliance in ...

By Michael Innes

If the Obama Administration is serious about Afghanistan, it should leave NATO out of the equation. The organization has survived a Cold War, genocide in the Balkans, piracy off the horn of Africa, cigarette smuggling, human trafficking, WMD proliferation, transnational terrorism, and cyberwar. It has been called the "most successful Alliance in history," though that success has been achieved through a combination of dogged persistence and bureaucratic dysfunction — a form of longevity and presence earned not through glorious battlefield victories, but rather arrived at on the cusp of consensus. Its lowest-common denominator politics have meant that the organization has been well positioned to withstand the tests of time, though they have been honoured in the breach more often than in the observance. Until Afghanistan.

NATO staff officers sometimes joke of its involvement in out-of-area operations, suggesting that the erstwhile "North Atlantic Treaty Organization" might as well be rebranded "Nearly Anywhere Terrorists Operate"; standing in the way of operational effectiveness, others quip, is the fact that in the absence of a diplomatic and military hive-mind, its (now) 28 member states are "Not Able To Organize". In the nearly two decades since the end of the Cold War, it has embraced, through its Strategic Concept, a veritable smorgasbord of threats. Former NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer memorably spoke to problems of "global security" in the post-911 world — an opportunity not lost on some empire-building bureaucrats within NATO’s convoluted chain of command to shore up fiefdoms and justify bloated budgets dedicated to short-term deliverables, measurable successes, and career-enhancing outcomes.

Many of those same staff officers, bequeathed with limited resources, equipped with even less patience, and facing innumerable obstacles to internal cooperation, have only too readily rolled their eyes at such chicanery. They mutter "ahhhh, NATO…" knowingly to one another, shrug, and continue on their merry way… all the while failing to acknowledge that the organization’s dysfunctions are nothing if not a composite of their own national and individual shortcomings. The most potent threat to the Alliance has more often than not been the national interests of its own member states and their representatives. The greatest evidence of this is the fact that there are very few individuals who ever actually work for NATO. Most are simply assigned to it for a few short months or years, and the national flags pinned to their uniformed shoulders or tailored lapels remain firmly affixed for the duration.

NATO’s own civil servants, however — ensconced in protected, well-paid, tax-exempt posts — hardly compensate for those divided loyalties. The trench-level view is that the REMFs and Fobbits in Brussels and The Hague are out of touch with the realities of the Afghan war. People sitting in offices argue that the gunfighters couldn’t plan their way out of a wet paper bag. And so it is with NATO: a schismatic, schizophrenic beast torn between national and institutional interests, between the NATO of soldiers and civilians, of diplomacy and battle, of bankers’ hours and IED strikes, of the immediacy of Afghanistan and the more ponderous bureaucratic requirements of future security cooperation. NATO is what its member states want it to be and allow it to become. They rightly demand value-added for their commitments of cash, materiel, and personnel — but only insofar as what in turn emerges from the NATO machine does not interfere with or supersede state interests.

This is both the promise and the price of a regional security organization that has endured for sixty years. The Alliance, however, has also shifted increasingly from a political-military club convened in the interest of collective self-defense, to an all-purpose surrogate for other organizations — including its own member states — unwilling to deal with or incapable of resolving the problems that are their remit. NATO was not meant for either the peacekeeping of the 1990s or the counterinsurgency dilemmas of Afghanistan. It is capable of awesome might, a war-fighting machine in the traditional sense of the term, and excels as a diplomatically empowered platform for destroying threats to the collective good. It is, however, ill-suited to the vicissitudes of nation building, with all the long-term occupation, reconstruction, development, and policing projects that that entails.

Gone are the days when NATO had the luxury to indulge in extracurriculars, as it did and continues to do in the post-war Balkans. In Afghanistan, where troops fight and die as a matter of course, there is neither patience nor justification for such experiments. The member states have never been unified on the country’s strategic significance, and very few of them believe Afghan soil and stability is worth the blood and treasure expended on it. That is their right. Let the nations, whose prerogative it is to do what they will, play with the intricacies and challenges of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism. They can do this on the basis of unilateral, bilateral, and multilateral cooperation — forms of which, indeed, have already been exercised among NATO’s Scandinavian and English-speaking countries and their non-NATO allies.

The U.S. in particular, as NATO’s largest contributor, should exercise greater caution and restraint in the demands it places on the organization and its members. Leveraging the institution for the patina of multilateralism that it affords its members comes at a cost in good relations between them, erodes their capacity to live up to their original obligations, promotes unrealistic expectations of NATO’s capacity for irregular warfare, and frays the bonds that have held the Alliance together for so long. Failure in Afghanistan, should it come to that, will be treated as NATO’s failure. Surely the Alliance, for all its limitations, is worth more than that; surely it is more than just a whipping post or scapegoat for the shortcomings of its national parts. If Afghanistan is NATO’s undoing, its member states ultimately will have only themselves to blame.

Michael A. Innes is a PhD Candidate at University College London and a Visiting Research Fellow in the School of Politics and International Studies, University of Leeds. He edited Making Sense of Proxy Wars: States, Surrogates and the Use of Force (Potomac Books, 2010), and is the author of The Sanctuary Complex (Hurst Publishers, 2010). From 2003 to 2009 he was a civilian staff officer with NATO, and spent the months of April and May this year as a staff liaison to ISAF HQ in Kabul.

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