The Cable

NATO General (Kind of) Agrees With Trump — Parts of the Alliance Are Broken (Sort of)

NATO has long had a Coutnerterrorism capability, but Afghanistan took up much of the alliance's time and energy.

NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg (3rd-R) chairs a meeting of foreign ministers at the NATO headquarters in Brussels on December 6, 2016. / AFP / JOHN THYS        (Photo credit should read JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images)
NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg (3rd-R) chairs a meeting of foreign ministers at the NATO headquarters in Brussels on December 6, 2016. / AFP / JOHN THYS (Photo credit should read JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images)

BRUSSELS—The highest-ranking French general in the NATO alliance said Tuesday that parts of the organization have indeed become obsolete, seemingly echoing the latest criticism hurled at the institution by President-elect Donald Trump.

But unlike Trump, who has slammed NATO for not fighting terrorism, French Air Force Gen. Denis Mercier said that it was precisely NATO’s focus on deploying to Afghanistan to fight the Taliban that overshadowed its other missions.

As a result, “NATO has failed to look at the change in the strategic background,” Mercier told a small group of reporters at NATO headquarters. And now, “we have some structures that are obsolete.”

Until the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014, NATO had spent years focused on expeditionary operations in places like Afghanistan, and took its eye off its core mission, which has always been the defense of Europe, Mercier said.

In order to get back to that mission, NATO officials are pushing new, smaller, initiatives to help partner nations build their own counterterrorism and military structures, while trying to cut through the alliance’s notorious red tape by doing away with redundant programs.

“We have a lot of duplication of effort,” he said, so leaders are working to streamline both military and political initiatives in the fight against terrorism.

In an interview with The Times of London published over the weekend, Trump said that “I took such heat, when I said NATO was obsolete. It’s obsolete because it wasn’t taking care of terror. I took a lot of heat for two days. And then they started saying Trump is right.”

But NATO’s recent adaptations like creating an intelligence office and streamlining the sharing of intel among the allies were in the works long before Trump ever spoke. And they set out to fix a rather different set of problems than he described.

NATO’s lumbering overhaul took a big step forward at the July 2016 Warsaw summit, where agreement was reached to deploy thousands of troops for the first time to Eastern Europe. Those troops, including 4,000 Americans sent to Poland, began arriving earlier this month.

The Warsaw summit saw “a huge adaptation of the alliance,” he said, including new agreements to work with outside organizations like the European Union, moving attention and assets to its eastern and southern flanks to meet the Russian threat and the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean.

“If there was not obsolescence in many areas of the alliance we would not have decided this adaptation,” Mercier said.

The general made his comments as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, met with other NATO leaders nearby, discussing the war in Ukraine, Russian aggression, and counterterrorism efforts.

NATO’s obsolescence, such as it is, hardly comes from neglecting counterterrorism. Before Trump’s criticism, alliance troops had already long been involved in counterterrorism campaigns — training Iraqi forces in Jordan, deploying a handful of military and civilian officials to Baghdad to assist in the fight against the Islamic State, patrolling the Mediterranean helping refugees and screening for potential extremists in their midst.

The alliance has also committed one of its AWACS surveillance planes to the fight in Iraq and Syria.

After years of fighting in Afghanistan, NATO has also set up its own special operations headquarters to study the lessons learned in the war, where U.S. and European commandos worked hand in hand for years to battle the Taliban and al Qaeda.

“We didn’t want to lose that edge, so we needed something to keep us integrated,” U.S. Army Col. Eric Bloom, spokesperson for NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, told reporters Tuesday.

“It’s what NATO should be doing. Our capabilities have continued to change to meet today’s requirements,” he said.


Photo Credit: JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images

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