The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Coalitions

Powerful lessons in personnel management from the former supreme allied commander of NATO.

LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images
LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images

During my time leading NATO global operations from 2009 through 2013 as the supreme allied commander, I spent an inordinate amount of time and effort focused on keeping the 50-nation coalition of the International Security Assistance Force on a steady course and speed in Afghanistan. In every sense, the coalition itself represented the strategic center of gravity in the complex struggle for the future of Afghanistan — and still does.

I believe in coalition warfare, but believe me: I do not wear rose-colored glasses as to the efficacy of such structures. And I yield to no man in my frustration with the care and management of such operations. As Gen. John Allen, one of the very best NATO commanders in history, takes up responsibility for building such a group to face the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria, here are some thoughts on the start-up phase:

1. Be patient, but push.

While speed in operations is essential, the assembly and maintenance of a coalition will move at a far more leisurely pace, reflecting the stately movements of diplomacy. This can be very frustrating. As Winston Churchill said, "The only thing worse that fighting a war with allies is fighting one without them." So the necessary mindset at the beginning must be to "take what we can get."

As things get underway, we cannot allow perfect to become the enemy of the good (or even the moderately helpful). The United States cannot accept the first "no" from nations asked to join the coalition, but rather must rephrase, apply more pressure, and ask again. As additional nations join, peer pressure comes into play, but patience will be key. The bottom line: Getting individual national parliaments, congresses, assemblies, and other political structures onboard will take time — be prepared to play the long game.

2. Deal with caveats as they come.

In the context of coalitions, a "caveat" is a no-go geographic zone, warfighting behavior, or operational activity for a given nation. For example, some nations chose to fight caveat-free in Afghanistan; others would not authorize their soldiers to fight at night, or outside Kabul, or to take prisoners.

Simply and baldly put, not every nation will be willing to do every task, nor take on equal levels of risk to their soldiers and airmen. It’s important to recognize this early, not to obsess over it, and to figure out ways to work around the holes. All of our NATO commanders learned to do this in Afghanistan. It can best be done by clearly apportioning tasks that fit within the caveats, but always pushing the edge of what is permitted. And it can change over time — by constantly working at the political level to lift the exemptions, and by asking the military to appeal to politicians for more flexibility and latitude in how they operate.

3. Obtain United Nations approval.

For many nations, a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution represents the gold standard of intervention approval. The more specific and directive the UNSC can be (e.g., a call for all nations to operate together to destroy IS), the better.

Two models come to mind. The first is Libya, where the U.N., via the Security Council, authorized NATO to "protect the people of Libya" from the dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi. This was helpful, particularly in signing up non-NATO nations to the coalition, such as the Arab states. It taps into the emerging international legal doctrine of the "responsibility to protect" (R2P). The second model is counterpiracy operations: There is a long history in international law of authorizing states to attack and destroy pirate organizations — something the Islamic State certainly resembles.

4. Align regional organizations.

As with U.N. approval, the approval of regional organizations — in this case, most obviously the Arab League — can help rally political will at home for many nations. This was evident in Libya, where many Arab countries (UAE, Qatar, Jordan) participated. Other regional organizations have a stake as well, notably the European Union — which is being deliberately threatened and its nationals targeted by IS. Even the African Union should be pulled into the discussion, as jihadists on that continent threaten to widen the conflict. Getting these disparate entities pulled together can be very helpful.

5. Engage NATO fully.

While the alliance is currently saying all the right things, total NATO help thus far has been minimal — merely organizing some flights, tracking logistics, and offering moral support. NATO is the richest and most capable military-political organization in history: Its 28 nations have 52 percent of the world’s GDP and over 3 million troops on active duty, along with more than 24,000 military aircraft. It has deep recent combat experience in Afghanistan, Libya, the Balkans, and on counterpiracy. It can and should do much more, and could act as a central organizing feature of an anti-IS coalition.

6. Appoint a strong manager.

The choice of Gen. John Allen is inspired. In addition to 19 months leading the warfighting coalition on the ground in Afghanistan, he has deep experience building coalitions in the Arab world, notably in Iraq and especially with the Sunni tribes. He also has the diplomatic skills and the calm personality that lends itself to this type of work.

He should be provided with an ambassador with recent experience in the region as a deputy and with a full-time, three-star, active-duty U.S. military officer with similar experience. He must be fully staffed and provided the logistics (dedicated Gulfstream V, secure instantaneous communications, etc.) — and then he must get on the road immediately. Even in this age of powerful communication tools, personal contact trumps everything.

7. Create a force-generation mechanism.

As offers start rolling in — aircraft sorties, anti-tank companies, logistic support, field hospitals, and on and on — someone has to organize them. Indeed, almost as soon as the campaign against the Islamic State is put in place, the commanders will have specific needs and a wish list to put in front of the nations. Matching the needs of the field commanders to the nations that are offering support is difficult, technical, and complex. NATO devotes a four-star British general (the deputy to the supreme allied commander, my old job) and a staff to do this. If U.S. Central Command intends to orchestrate the campaign against IS, they need to set up a full-time staff element to generate, apportion, and move forces forward. The sooner this is put in place, the better.

* * *

As the coalition gets up and running, there are lots of other things to consider, like the use of donor conferences at the level of the secretary of state or secretary of defense; how to integrate with civilian agencies on the ground in the region (many of the Islamic State’s hostages are aid workers); whether and when to hold summits with heads of state and governments; the applicability of financial and economic tools by the coalition; and how to structure command and control on the ground. All of this will come with time. The ideas above are just a beginning, as the coalition comes together.

We know how to do this — let’s get underway.

 Twitter: @stavridisj

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