Tuesday, 18 September 2012

UPDATE: NATO Disarray in Afghanistan

The Guardian (amongst many others) has a report on events today in the wake of NATO's scramble to deal with the green-on-blue killings. It is now clear that UK Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond was not told of the change in cooperation with Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) until after he made a statement to the House of Commons on Monday.

Today, he said the change was tactical, not strategic and he didn't interfere at the tactical level. He added that nothing has really changed in UK operations. This statement is at best deeply disingenuous as Mr Hammond must have known this is a major development on the ground. The MOD has said that the US General commanding UK forces in Helmand has pre-approved the current level of tactical operations with ANSF, but this is contradicted by an ISAF statement today which said that exceptions to this rule must be approved by a senior commander.

Since there have been 12 green-on-blue attacks killing 15 NATO soldiers in the past month, it is clear that something had to change. But the way this has been handled and, at a minimum, the appearance of disarray created has undermined ISAF's mission, perhaps for good. How much of an Alliance is it when the US changes the ground rules and doesn't bother to inform a major ally and the country in which operations are taking place? Mr Hammond has been left looking out of touch and weak.

NATO Monitor agrees with Labour's Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander when he said:

"But sitting beyond that question is the deeper question: does this represent a temporary tactical response by military commanders on the ground or does it represent a more strategic shift in the mission?"If we are in a position where a regional commander is generally unwilling to grant the authority for troops to go out on patrol with Afghan soldiers, that would severely compromise the capacity of the mission to deliver its objectives."He went on: "The whole of the strategy in Afghanistan now is built around the premise that as the international forces step back, the Afghan forces can step up."That's why I think there are very serious questions for the government to answer in the hours ahead."
And the Monitor also agrees with John Baron, conservative MP who said today that the announcement "threatens to blow a hole in our stated exit strategy, which is heavily reliant on these joint operations continuing until Afghan forces are able to operate independently". 

NATO Afghan Strategy in Disarray

NATO strategy in Afghanistan is today in complete disarray. The path that the Alliance's leaders had mapped out towards withdrawal no longer seems at all clear, as the Alliance has announced in confused circumstances that the training and monitoring mission which is supposed to create the conditions for an end to ISAF combat missions is now restricted to large unit cooperation in major operations.

This follows the deaths of six NATO soldiers on Sunday (see report here) in green-on-blue attacks, bringing the total of NATO soldiers killed by their allies this year to over fifty. it also follows a major Taliban assault on Camp Bastion, when six harrier jump jets were destroyed, and two badly damaged. Hangars and refuelling stations were also attacked and NATO personnel, including the commander of the squadron involved, killed. (see report here)

So far, so clear. The security situation in country is not improving, and the Taliban is showing an ability to mount well coordinated attacks at a major NATO target. What followed next is extraordinary and shows the confusion within NATO.

In a statement to the House of Commons UK Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond said:

Our servicemen and women are doing vital work protecting the UK from the threat of international terrorism. Our strategy is clear. We are mentoring and training the Afghan army and police to deliver security to their own people. This will allow our forces first to withdraw into a support role and then to come home. The Taliban hate this strategy and seek to wreck it through insider attacks. They aim to disrupt the collaboration with Afghan forces, which is at the heart of our strategy. We cannot and will not allow the process to be derailed.Our partnering with the Afghan national security forces involves risk, but it is essential to success.
However, apparently on Sunday (at least according to the New York Times) orders were issued to NATO forces that training and mentoring will now happen at the battalion level and above. Mr Hammond appeared unaware of this, or did not see fit to report it to the House of Commons. The Afghan government was not told, and learned of the policy switch in news reports.

The New York Times reported that:
At a news conference on that trip, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said: “We are concerned with regards to these insider attacks and the impact they are having on our forces.” Gen. John R. Allen, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, "has reflected that in the steps that he has taken," Mr. Panetta said.
NATO has subsequently clarified that smaller unit cooperation in the field is still possible, but authorisation for such mission - even at the platoon level - will have to be given by a 2 star general. This is a major change, since platoon and company commanders have previously been able to order such missions. it will greatly hamper the ability of NATO ISAF to support their Afghan allies. The BBC World Service has reported this morning that an Afghan unit last night requested medevac after a vehicle hit an IED. US forces in the area refused the support, no doubt fearing an ambush, and a medevac they could have provided in 30 minutes took Afghan national forces 6 hours to provide. It doesn't much imagination to see that this will hit morale, and make Afghan forces much less willing to conduct combat operations and even routine patrolling.

Afghans are apparently dismayed by the change, as the New York Times reports:

Afghan soldiers were not reassured by such talk. Three interviewed as word spread Tuesday said their many of their units were not yet ready to fight alone – an assessment shared by the Pentagon — and could be in deep trouble without close coalition assistance.
The curtailment of partnered operations is “a big problem for the Afghan Army,” said Maj. Salam, an officer based in western Afghanistan who asked that he only be identified by his rank and last name. 
“We rely on the Americans for everything,” he continued. “The army is not in a level to carry out military operations independently, we still need their support. I do not buy the lies that the MOD officials are trying to sell us and the public — we are in the field and we know how difficult it would be for the army without Americans.”
This weekend may come to be seen as a major turning point. British Conservative MP Colonel Bob Stewart, famous and highly regarded for his service in the army in Bosnia, has called for UK forces to be withdrawn as soon as possible. There is no doubt that he reflects majority public opinion. NATO has lost the PR war, and while winning the tactical engagements is losing the war on the ground too.

It seems very unlikely that NATO will be able to leave behind a stable government with fully functioning security forces in control of its national territory when it leaves. So what does this mean for NATO? The destruction of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and the toppling of its Taliban ally had been accomplished a decade ago. if they can't leave a functioning government able to survive on its own after 2014, then what were the next ten years of combat for? And what future is there for NATO expeditionary missions when this one has failed so badly? How can NATO missions even be mounted when the US behaves in such a unilateral fashion and leaves its allies swinging in the wind, as Phillip Hammond now is? These are the kinds of questions that need answering today.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Should Israel Joint NATO?

Haaretz has published an op-ed recommending that Israel could find a structural solution to its security problems by taking membership of the Atlantic Alliance.

The arguments advanced in the article are interesting but not entirely compelling to NATO Monitor.

While it seems logical that Israel would be far less scared of Iran if it had NATO membership, there are major problems that would need to be overcome. Principle amongst these is the issue of relations between Israel and Palestine.

Would Israel, in return for the security embrace of NATO, be prepared to end the de facto siege of Gaza? Would it be prepared to allow the creation of a viable Palestinian state with properly contiguous territory on the West Bank, and working connections to Gaza?

Would Israel be willing to forego sabre-rattling military options like its periodic wars in Lebanon?

In summary, would Israel be prepared to mature sufficiently as a state to take up the serious responsibilities of a state receiving the Article V security guarantee that NATO offers? Would it be prepared to act in a completely different way, not threatening to drag its allies into war at every turn?

Would Israel gain anything from NATO membership? After all, it already has strong links with the US and other NATO allies. Haaretz lists 7 exercises in which NATO members and Israel jointly participate this year:
The seven exercises involve the special forces (an exercise known as JCET ), the navy (three exercises - Noble Dina, Noble Melinda and Reliant Mermaid ), the marines (Noble Shirley ), the National Guard (an exercise in responding to a chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or explosive attack ), and a combined forces operation that includes ballistic missile defense drills (Austere Challenge, which includes the Juniper Cobra and Juniper Falcon exercises ). The latter, scheduled for October, is the one that the United States recently scaled down drastically, from a planned 5,000 troops to possibly as few as 1,200.
Would Israel share NATO's assessment of its security situation? With PM Netanyahu exploding into overblown rhetoric at every opportunity it seems unlikely. As Haaretz reports, Admiral Stavridis NATO's Supreme Commander, shares the assessment of his analysts that Israel is currently more secure than at any time since 1948. Hardly the outlook of the Netanyahu government which proclaims regularly that the second holocaust is coming.

Looked at from the Arab side, would Israeli membership of NATO be seen as aimed against Arab states or as part of a process to normalise relations between Israel and its neighbours by providing the Israel with the security it needs to allow such a process to happen?

These are questions worth exploring, as any potential solution to the security morass in the Middle East is worth exploring. But NATO is certainly a long way from going down this path.

Libyan Weapons Arming Regional Conflicts

IPS news service has a piece following up on a theme that NATO Monitor has followed regularly over the last year. Weapons from Libya, which have proliferated across the region as a result of the insecurity in Libya caused by the NATO-assisted overthrow of the previous regime, are fuelling conflicts from Mali to Syria. The article notes that:
“All of the militias are involved in selling weapons. There is no law in Libya, still no functioning government, and the country’s security forces are too weak to control the situation, so selling weapons is regarded as legal by many of the rebels,” said Ridwan, a former rebel who fought with Tripoli’s Suq Al Jumma Katiba (brigades). 
“Many of the fighters got greedy following the war and believe they are entitled to compensation for the sacrifices they made for their country as they believe the government has abandoned them,” Ridwan, who did not give his last name, told IPS. 
“The guys sell an AK-47 on the black market for 1,000 Libyan dinars (800 dollars). An anti-aircraft gun mounted on the back of a pickup truck goes for between 8000-10,000 LD. Most of the weapons are smuggled to the borders, especially Turkey.
NATO Monitor is not arguing that the overthrow of Gaddhafi was a bad thing, simply that consequences such as the weapons proliferation resulting from the conflict should have been foreseen and measures taken to minimise the problem. NATO could have taken steps to work with regional governments to help them better secure borders. It could and should have done more to ensure that Libyan arms dumps were destroyed. these are lessons that need to be well learned before the next such war.

Green on Blue - a Symptom of the Real Problem

The news that Prince Harry has redeployed to Afghanistan as an Apache helicopter commander as thrown a major spotlight on the risks in the upsurge of green-on-blue killings of NATO soldiers by their Afhgan colleagues.

This follows hard on the heels of the announcement from the US, as reported in papers like the Washington Post, of the suspension of training for Afghan recruits to enable better vetting procedures to be put into place. This follows a dramatic rise of such killings this year, with 45 NATO personnel killed by Afghan colleagues so far this year, as against 35 in the whole of 2011 - and a total of 101 since 2007.

Journalists are writing stories to try to explain this phenomenon like this one in Scotland's Herald, and this one in a Channel 4 blog, in which an anonymous Afghan officer says:
“I understand why our men are shooting US and NATO soldiers. I too have been personally hurt by the way American forces behave towards my soldiers, our villagers, our religion and culture. Too many of them are racist, arrogant, and simply don’t respect us.”
The wider problem is that the US and NATO have no place in Afghanistan in 2012. Had the war there been confined to the toppling of the Taliban and the establishment of a government with wider legitimacy across the country, followed by an early exit, then these problems would not have emerged.

The desire to build a nation, and the cackhanded way that goal has been pursued, has led to a long term occupation and the consequent killings of thousands of innocent Afghan civilians. When the utter contempt of western soldiers for Afghans is figured into the equation, then strong resistance including green on blue killings was inevitable given time.

NATO has no goal left in Afghanistan except to get out without being completely humiliated, and even that looks harder to achieve by the day. Soldiers are now being killed an a near daily basis for no good purpose whatsoever, and the starkest manifestation of that are the green on blue incidents. Better training and better vetting will have no effect. NATO estimates that just 25% of these killings are Taliban plots, as if that shows their security works. Insisting, for example as here in the words of Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow that most of these killings are personal affairs and that the Afghan-NATO alliance remains solid. Instead it just highlights how unpopular foreign forces are in country. It also highlights that gap between the  Karzai government and the Afghan people.

Want to stop the green on blue killings? It's time, beyond time, to leave.