NATO’s General Craddock, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), spoke at RUSI in London on Monday. His speech, and the question and answer session that followed, were thought provoking. The issues that the General raised have a strong bearing on the future of the Alliance, and in particular the any revision of the Strategic Concept following the Strasbourg-Kehl Summit next spring. The headlines that the press gave to the speech concerned mostly narrow tactical issues facing the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) that NATO leads in Afghanistan. Craddock talked about Afghanistan, but the significance of his remarks lay more in their long tern strategic implications. He began by saying that:
… the Center for Strategic and International Studies [and] RUSI recently published a compelling article about NATO’s future in view of its current operation in Afghanistan. The authors argue that 'the troubles the Alliance has encountered in Afghanistan are not specific to the ISAF mission. They reflect very real changes in the global security environment – issues that to date NATO has failed to address'. In short, they see the operation in 'Afghanistan as a symptom, not the cause', and ask some hard-hitting questions that I believe our Alliance must answer. Questions such as: what are the long-term consequences if nations remain uncomfortable with far away missions like Afghanistan? Will NATO permanently opt to scale back missions outside the Euro-Atlantic area? What are the consequences of undertaking more missions like Afghanistan in light of varying beliefs within the alliance about the use of military force? These are important questions – questions that rightly belong at NATO’s political level. However, the answers to these questions are undoubtedly shaped by what we do at the military strategic, operational, and tactical levels.
The truth is that NATO has failed to manage the transition from the Cold War to the Long War with any measure of success. The military structure that integrated forces ready for a potential battle on the Central Front has been dismantled (although the command structure remains), and the ad-hoc arrangements for operations that were used in Kosovo have not stood up to the rigours of a much longer and more complicated campaign in Afghanistan. Allowing nations to decide on a case by case basis what troops and equipment they provide, and how those forces are used has placed huge constraints on NATO operations in theatre. Craddock continued:
NATO’s role and credibility as a security provider in the post-cold war era will be judged by how we respond to emerging crises, and if committed, how well we perform in our operations.
This presupposes an answer to one of the questions Craddock has already posed. Should NATO play a role in security provision beyond the Euro-Atlantic area? This is a position that divides NATO. France and Germany are not keen on NATO taking a global leadership role, while the US (with the UK at its side) is enthusiastic for such responsibility. However, it is likely that the strongest opposition away from an emphasis on territorial defence to expeditionary missions will come from the NATO members in Eastern Europe. The Baltic States, Poland and others have a vision of NATO as their protector from Russia. This has only sharpened as a result of the summer’s conflict in Georgia. However, that said, if NATO does decide to take on missions like ISAF, it has do to do so without reservation, united and using all tools necessary to succeed. This has not been the case with ISAF. While troop levels are roughly consistent with the requirement of field commanders, nations have been reluctant to provide certain capabilities (for example, the constant lack of helicopters for troop and supplies transport to remote battlefields), and the debate about the long list of national ‘caveats’ on the use of forces in country has been close to an embarrassment for the Alliance. This is the risk for NATO of pursuing continued relevance through the acceptance of ‘missions of choice’ rather than those forced on the Alliance by the need to defend its members’ territory.
NATO also faces another problem in Afghanistan that General Craddock highlighted:
… the conflict in Afghanistan cannot be won by military means alone – we are just one member of a greater team. The military must provide a safe and secure environment to enable the conditions for the government of Afghanistan – and the international community – to deliver good governance, reconstruction, and enduring development. For this co-operative effort to succeed, we in the international community must come together as part of a truly comprehensive approach. The current effort remains disjointed in time and space.
Perhaps the root of the problem is that we don’t all see the concept in the same light. For some a comprehensive approach entails the many actors in the international community playing their roles and doing their parts, individually, toward the collective vision for success. In the end – I believe the overarching strategy of the international community is correct – but we must find a way to enhance our comprehensive approach toward success. We need a cohesive and coherent effort with cooperation and coordination – building on common strengths and off-setting persistent shortfalls.
While NATO’s ‘take, hold, build’ strategy is the classic strategy for fighting an insurgency, the problem for NATO is that it doesn’t control the final part of this. It has to work with the EU, the United Nations and a wide range of NGOs. The Provincial Reconstruction Teams are part of meeting this need on the ground, but NATO is not structured at the command or political level to run a reconstruction effort. It is true that there needs to be a unified command effort in Afghanistan, but it is doubtful that NATO is best placed to undertake that role. NATO needs to agree, at the political level, to provide forces for its operational commanders and then to allow those commanders to get on with their job. It would be best, if operating outside Europe, that this were done at the service of the United Nations, to reinforce an internationalist and cooperative approach to security building. The UN can bring expertise to bear in areas where NATO is deficient, allowing for a much greater chance of success in Afghanistan.
If NATO is unable to agree an operational framework that frees its commanders to do their job, then it need not engage in a debate as to the desirability or otherwise of amending the Strategic Concept to give NATO the structures it needs to act as a ‘global security provider’ (as the Secretary General likes to say). In such circumstances, NATO would be unable to operationalise such aims anyway, just as it is falling short with ISAF. Whatever path NATO takes the essential thing is that its members act together. As General Craddock put it:
… we are demonstrating a political will that is – somewhat – wavering. And it is this wavering political will that impedes operational progress and brings into question the relevancy of the alliance here in the twenty-first century. Clearly – the alliance cannot nor should not do everything everywhere – but we need to define what role we wish to play in today’s security environment.
This couldn’t be more true, but presents the Alliance with a major difficulty. There has been no revision of the Strategic Concept for a decade as many believe that the members of NATO, especially since the last round of enlargement, diverge too deeply on the role the Alliance should play. However, General Craddock suggests a way to proceed:
NATO must continually assess the role it wants to have in the current security environment and assess its capabilities and its will to fulfil that role… I believe our alliance should start with a comprehensive global strategic threat assessment – shortly followed by a twenty-first century strategic concept.
This seems only sensible. If NATO has a future as an Alliance then its member states must agree what threats it faces, and then how to deal with them. It must also be prepared to provide the necessary resources. At a time of global recession, that is going mean a smaller, more constricted Alliance, at least in terms of a reduction of acquisition of military hardware and of operations. However, if NATO is to retain any credibility then, as Craddock insisted:
Whatever we decide, NATO’s role is in our world – we must all be certain that our reach does not extend beyond our grasp – that our level of ambition is in step with our political will and our military capability.
One proposal that General Craddock advanced would see a radical shift in the way that operations are funded and organized. He suggested that in future, rather than each troop providing nation paying the cost of their operations, NATO should at least explore the possibility of:
.. the use of common funding. With a system of common funding – deployment costs can be shared – thereby reducing the strain on national defence budgets.
He also proposed a major shift in NATO’s decision-making. One where political decision would continue to be taken by consensus, but operational decisions would not:
More flexible and rapid decision-making processes are needed if we are to address the challenges we face today and tomorrow. Our alliance has long operated under the system of consensus – and at the political level – this system has proven powerful in garnering international support and legitimacy. But do we really need to achieve consensus at every level of committee within the NATO structure? In my judgement this policy stands squarely in the path of agile decision-making.
These proposals taken as a whole make sense. They would transform NATO and end the ‘war by committee’ controversy that first emerged in Kosovo. General Craddock properly dealt with military and operational reform of NATO to make Alliance operations more effective. That is his role. However, he ignored one area of NATO defence strategy that is under his control, and where reform is most urgent - the need to reconsider the role of nuclear forces in Alliance policy.
If NATO is to become involved increasingly in expeditionary warfare with Afghanistan as a model, then nuclear weapons are redundant – and indeed counterproductive, they simply have no role whatsoever in such scenarios. The risk assessment and Strategic Concept debates the General proposes have to take this into consideration.
NATO’s nuclear forces also have no role for defence in the current strategic situation. NATO retains a significant nuclear force, both tactical and strategic, supposedly deter aggression. However, the massive conventional forces of the Warsaw Pact have melted away or even joined NATO. There is simply no conventional threat to the Alliance. Similarly, with Russia as a strategic partner, there is no extent nuclear threat to the Alliance. Such nuclear or other WMD threats as might emerge (Iran notably) could, with adept diplomacy and appropriate security guarantees, be negotiated away before they emerge. Rather than refusing to discuss arms reductions and elimination, thereby hurting non-proliferation efforts, NATO needs to engage with its neighbours to achieve a mutual end to WMD threats, and the blueprint for that engagement needs to be written into the Strategic Concept.
A NATO military that was not subject to consensus rules for operations, as the General has proposed, would mean that elimination of the Alliance's nuclear role would become urgent. The Cold War thinking that General Craddock says dominates the Alliance at present must change. The ridiculous assertion in the Strategic Concept that it takes the presence of American nuclear weapons in Europe to maintain the trans-Atlantic link is one part of the NATO’s thinking most in need of such change. A 21st century NATO cannot simply rely on 1950s nuclear thinking.
General Craddock’s speech is available on the RUSI website.