The South Asia Channel

Budgeting NATO’s future

The NATO summit currently underway in Lisbon will set in motion a train of events pinned to a handover of responsibility to Afghan forces and phased withdrawal over the next few years. The mission will be less than a success, but it will be brought to a "successful conclusion" – using the same flat, inglorious ...

Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The NATO summit currently underway in Lisbon will set in motion a train of events pinned to a handover of responsibility to Afghan forces and phased withdrawal over the next few years. The mission will be less than a success, but it will be brought to a "successful conclusion" – using the same flat, inglorious euphemism previously used to describe the termination of NATO operations in the Balkans in 2003 and 2004.

Getting to that point in Afghanistan, however, will require a bit more work. Casting a long shadow over all of it is NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s plan for radical spending cuts to NATO, to be announced today. The plans include the reduction of military officers assigned to its strategic headquarters from 13,000 to 9,000, cutting some of its European headquarters entirely, and the elimination of 11 of NATO’s 14 support agencies. Afghanistan has placed enormous strains on the Alliance, but they pale in significance compared to such extensive cuts.

The spending cuts proposal may simply be meant as a wake up call, the sort of negotiating tactic intended to wring resources from the tightfisted clutches of Alliance members. But if it is real — the general harsh mood on spending issues suggest it is — and if NATO manages to get the plan through the maze of national interests that invariably mutate such efforts, then it will raise serious questions about future Alliance capacity to manage current operations, much less accommodate new member states.

Eviscerating NATO’s ‘Peacetime Establishment’ — its collection of static headquarters in Europe — is probably a good thing. There is enormous waste, and the pace and priorities of entrenched bureaucracies rarely translate well to pressing operational requirements. There is, however, a substantial risk that what remains will be neither effective nor desirable. Such pruning exercises are old hat within NATO. It has gone through two in the last six years — expanding, contracting and redistributing itself throughout Europe and North America (let’s not forget the relatively recent creation of Allied Command Transformation, headquartered in Norfolk, Virginia). When scrutinized carefully, the results look and function less like the paper plans they start with and more like peculiar, idiosyncratic, and inefficient workarounds.

If NATO’s command structure can’t be redesigned from scratch, then simply gutting it into passivity and irrelevance might not be a bad second option. But there is another risk. NATO, for all its internal incoherence and bloat, is unique among security institutions. It represents a long-term coordination capability, the value of which has often been lost on those only superficially familiar with the organization, or on those newly assigned to it and caught up in the thrill and immediacy of operations. One hopes that the member states will be more cautious and measured in their deliberations on the future of the Alliance. Such a bold move on spending will constrain capabilities, and with them the character of the organization. That’s a good thing, but only if it’s done right — and only if what remains can effectively support deployed forces in Afghanistan.

Michael A. Innes is a Teaching Fellow in International Security, University College London, and a Visiting Research Fellow in the School of Politics and International Studies, University of Leeds.

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