Thursday, 22 October 2009

NATO Defence Ministers Meet in Bratislava

NATO Defence Ministers are gathering in Bratislava for their regular Autumn informal meeting.

The meeting starts this evening with dinner, at which ministers will discuss defence transformation. Investment in military technology and maintaining defence budgets is a difficult, if not impossible, task in the current economic climate. The UK is considering cancellation of major programmes, like future aircraft carriers. The US will next year cut its defence budget for the first time in a decade, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates has begun to eliminate some spending programmes. Overall, it is unlikely that the mood for this discussion will be positive. The NATO announcement for the meeting says that Ministers will focus on resources prioritisation in a difficult economic environment. This puts a premium on collective solutions, with an important role for common funding arrangements and common projects where appropriate. Participants are also likely to discuss how best to ensure the availability of usable and sustainable forces for NATO missions. Ministers will also discuss the tasks assigned to the NATO Response Force, including its role in enhancing Allied collective defence and overall cohesion of NATO.

(The NATO Bratislava meeting page is here)

Tomorrow morning, the main discussion will be on Afghanistan, as well as other NATO missions such as Kosovo. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen says that:

I believe we need a general agreement on the approach we need to take in Afghanistan: and that should mean an endorsement of the approach set out by General McChrystal. To my mind, it is clear. Hoping that Taliban extremists will never again host Al- Qaeda is not a strategy. They did it in the past. We can only assume they will do it in future. Which means that Afghanistan needs to be made strong enough to resist the insurgency, if it is to be able to resist terrorism. It’s as simple as that. And that is the essence of the McChrystal approach. What does that mean? It means more and better reconstruction and development. It means holding the new Afghan Government to account, to deal with corruption effectively and visibly. And it means building Afghan Security forces strong enough to provide security in Afghanistan, with us in a supporting role.

(You can read his full briefing here)

This will also be a difficult discussion. Political support for the mission is sapping away. There is an intense debate in the UK as to whether Afghanistan is worth British dead and British investment. Australia is considering the withdrawal of its 1500-strong troop contingent. Even in the US the public mood is swinging strongly against future involvement in Afghanistan. The commitment of much of Europe has been in doubt for a long time. So Ministers have their work cut out to justify the future NATO role, especially with the massive corruption evident in Afghan elections and the increasingly obvious failings of the Karzai government.

The abandonment of the mid-course ballistic missile defence deployments in Poland and the Czech Republic, together with proposed deployments of shorter range systems as part of NATO BMD proposals will also be discussed. The handling of this issue by the Bush and Obama administrations has left many in Eastern Europe angered, and the political fallout with Russia had previously angered many in the west. NATO is divided on BMD, and much work will be needed to overcome these divisions.

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