Why NATO must evolve

COMMENTARY Global Politics

Why NATO must evolve

Nov 23rd, 2006 3 min read
Helle C. Dale

Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy

Her current work focuses on the U.S. government’s institutions and programs for strategic outreach to the public of foreign countries.

Can NATO avoid rigor mortis? Pardon the pun, but as leaders of the NATO countries meet next week for their annual summit in Riga, Latvia, it is a reasonable question. The answer may lie in Afghanistan, where NATO is currently engaged in its first ever mission outside Europe. NATO countries are aware of this fact and much determination has been expressed to make it a success. 

As global challenges mount, Afghanistan is probably only the first of a number of such missions. In the future we may look at NATO as a global alliance, an idea that is increasingly under serious consideration. As U.S. ambassador to NATO Victoria Nuland has stated: "If we can't do missions like that of Afghanistan, then we can't do our overall mission." Afghanistan, however, presents two problems for NATO, one that is beyond our control and one we can do something about. 

First of all, Afghanistan has a history of defying outside intervention, from Alexander the Great to the British Empire to the Soviet Union; so, as a test case, it is probably as difficult a challenge as can be conceived. With a history of tribal warfare, poverty unimagined in our part of the world, a terrain as inaccessible as any on earth and an extremely tenuous national identity, Afghanistan is progressing very slowly towards reconstruction. In addition to the military efforts, civilian commitments are dispersed, badly coordinated and often underfunded. Yet, compared to Iraq, Afghanistan does have the potential to be a success, though under difficult circumstances. 

Second, and for the purposes of the Riga summit more pertinently, NATO troops on the ground are subject to restrictions on their activities imposed not by the command on the ground, but by their own national governments. This is a major obstacle to their effectiveness. As one Pentagon official recently stated in frustration, "This is no way to run an alliance." How to deal with the national "caveats" besetting the mission ought to be at the top of the summit agenda. 

All 26 NATO countries currently have troops on the ground in Afghanistan, but their numbers vary in the extreme. And it took a good deal of prodding by Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer to get the numbers up to the current level of 32,000, which still falls short of the need. In some provinces like the border regions with Pakistan, for instance, there are practically no troops from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). In September last year, he berated NATO's members, "If you are a member of an alliance based on solidarity, you have to deliver...We need to do more." 

The United Kingdom and the United States currently make up the bulk of the 32,000 NATO troops there, with Britain contributing 6,000 and the United States 12,000, who only recently were placed under NATO command. Canada comes third with 2,500 and Germany fourth with 2,700. The Netherlands has 2,000, Italy 1,800 and France just under 1,000. The new NATO members, whose desire to show good faith and good citizenship in NATO is somewhat hampered by their abilities at this point, are all around 100 or less. 

As Brig. Gen. Tim Grant, who is in charge of the Canadian forces in Afghanistan, told the Associated Press, if the command of the NATO-led force "had more flexibility in the deployment and the use of all the troops here, I think it would be better for everyone." 

What's more, restrictions imposed by various NATO countries limit the areas where troops can be deployed. Only six out of NATO's 26 members have no restrictions on the deployment of their troops. Germany troops, for instance, are confined to northern Afghanistan, and they are limited to performing construction projects. Turkish troops remain present in the Kabul region, but the Turkish government has rejected committing to any operations in the south. 

NATO Secretary-General James Jones has estimated that there are 102 national restrictions out of which 50 were seriously detrimental to deployment. Poland recently announced that it would drop restrictions on the Polish troops, an example others should follow. 

All this ought to add up to some serious thinking in Riga on what kind of an alliance NATO wants to be in the post-Cold War, post-September 11 global environment. The answer may be an alliance with global reach that includes other allies, Australia and New Zealand for instance, that consistently can be relied upon to be there when we need them. If NATO is not to atrophy, it has to evolve.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in the Washington Times