NATO’s Turn to Attack

There’s a time for soft power and playing the long game. But the attacks in Paris prove the Islamic State is overdue for eradication.


On the morning after France’s long night of terror, the language of war has been impossible to avoid. President François Hollande declared the attacks on Paris “an act of war that was waged by a terrorist army, a jihadist army, by Daesh [the Islamic State], against France.” The Islamic State has hailed the “blessed” operation of its “soldiers” and has vowed continued attacks. Pope Francis has described the current state of events as “a piece” of a piecemeal Third World War.

The weather in Paris today is grim and gray, a reflection of the city’s somber mood. But as the French government prepares for a possible military response, France’s military allies — including the United States — would be wise to do the same. Paris would be within its rights to expect NATO to play a meaningful role in organizing a significant military response to the attacks.

In Brussels, at the political headquarters of NATO, and in Mons, the military “Pentagon” of NATO just an hour south, officials will be working through the weekend. The 28-nation alliance, after all, is founded on one key premise enshrined in the Article 5 of its founding treaty: “The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked.” It is worth noting that the only country to ever activate Article 5 was the United States after the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

If France would like to become the second such country, the first step would be to call for an Article 4 consultation, which would convene the ambassadors of the 28 nations, who are in permanent session in Brussels, to discuss the situation and decide a course of action. This happened most recently in 2014, when Turkey requested an Article 4 meeting after the Islamic State attacks there.

It seems likely that an Article 4 meeting would conclude that the Paris massacres, given their scale and scope, should be considered an attack under Article 5. That would be entirely appropriate. The terrorist attacks — assuming that the Islamic State is, in fact, responsible for them — are the culmination of a long-running humanitarian disaster in Syria that has destabilized the Middle East and initiated the flow of millions of refugees into the heart of Europe. NATO can no longer pretend the conflict does not affect its most basic interests.

The fundamental purpose of a NATO mission should be to defeat the Islamic state in Syria and destroy the infrastructure it has created there. Such a mission would have the additional benefit of demonstrating that NATO is willing to act decisively when it is under threat.

Setting aside the internal disagreements that sometimes slow it down, NATO is an imposing military force. NATO has tremendous military resources at its disposal, including over 3 million troops under arms (and more in reserve), over 25,000 military aircraft, 800 oceangoing major combatant ships, and 50 AWACS aircraft. Meanwhile, the group’s 28 nations represent over 50 percent of global GDP.

A major NATO mission against the Islamic State would consist of a number of smaller, practical steps. First, according to NATO’s treaty, the incident must be referred to the U.N. Security Council. In terms of international law, it would be ideal for the Security Council to endorse a military response, though NATO would be capable of proceeding regardless.

Second, the alliance should assign one of its major joint commands to lead the planning and conduct of any operational response. Since the Allied Joint Force Command in Brunssum in the Netherlands is fully engaged as the lead command for Afghanistan, the task would likely fall to the other major command: the Allied Joint Force Command in Naples, Italy. This is the command that conducted the intervention in Libya and is one that has significant planning and operational experience, as well as deep connections to coalition partners from the region — the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Qatar, and others. NATO’s military planners should aim to include not only the alliance’s official members, but also its many coalition partners, including Sweden, Finland, and other regional actors.

A third key initiative would be to prepare NATO special forces for a central role in military operations. NATO Special Operations Headquarters in Casteau, Belgium, should take the lead in organizing intelligence-sharing among member states; it should also prepare the alliance’s joint special forces to be deployed on the ground in Syria to train and motivate anti-Islamic State fighters, gather firsthand intelligence, conduct raids, and serve as spotters for NATO and coalition aircraft.

Fourth, and most importantly in the long term, NATO should organize a training mission to work with both the combined Kurdish Peshmerga-Yazidi force operating in northern Iraq and the Iraqi security forces in Baghdad. Jordan — which has highly capable ground troops — should also be invited to participate at a high level. These efforts could be modeled on the NATO Training Mission-Iraq (NTM-I), which was in place from 2004 to 2011.

Fifth, the current U.S.-led bombing campaign in Syria and Iraq should come under NATO leadership. NATO could then increase the assets deployed in that mission by contributing additional aircraft, troops, ordnance, and AWACS aircraft, whose powerful radar provide 360-degree coverage of air battle space. NATO very effectively organized command and control over airspace in Afghanistan, and it could do the same in the current conflict.

Lastly, NATO should emphasize that it is building an “open coalition,” one that can not only include the forces of traditional allies, but also those of NATO’s traditional adversary, Russia. The Russian government claims to want to defeat the Islamic State, and it should have no lack of motivation, given the over 200 dead citizens — including many women and children — who seem to have been massacred by the Islamic State in the downing of a civilian aircraft just two weeks ago. Russia should be invited to participate alongside NATO and other coalition members against the Islamic State.

If the French seek strong NATO participation in a broad and lethal campaign against the Islamic State, Americans must offer support. They would be following the example set by the French on behalf of the United States after 9/11, and, in an earlier century, during the American Revolutionary War.

The Islamic State is an apocalyptic organization overdue for eradication. It has beheaded and raped citizens from around the world; has killed civilians in spectacular and horrific ways; has enslaved young women and girls and sold them in open markets; and appears to have brought down a commercial aircraft full of tourists. Now it has killed Westerners execution-style in a city theater. There is a time for soft power and playing the long game in the Middle East, but there is also a time for the ruthless application of hard power. It is NATO’s responsibility to recognize our current moment qualifies as the latter.

Photo credit: STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP/Getty Images

Corrections, Nov. 14, 2015: Pope Francis said the Paris attacks are “a piece” of a piecemeal Third World War; an earlier version of this article mistakenly said he called the attacks “the Third World War.” The Islamic State is believed to have brought down a Russian commercial plane in Egypt; an earlier version of this article said the group shot down the plane. The NATO special forces headquarters in Belgium is called NATO Special Operations Headquarters; an earlier version of this article called it NATO Special Forces Headquarters. The misspellings of the Dutch city of Brunssum and the Yazidi religious minority have been corrected.

James Stavridis is a retired four-star U.S. Navy admiral and NATO supreme allied commander who serves today as the dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. His latest book is The Leader's Bookshelf. Twitter: @stavridisj