It appears that the great experiment with counter-insurgency has run its course. In Afghanistan, a dramatic downsizing of the NATO presence is drawing near. In the United States, the so-called pivot to the Asia-Pacific region signals that the armed forces can return to the business of preparing to fight regular adversaries.
Recent doctrinal developments such as the Joint Operational Access Concept and AirSea Battle provide sufficient proof of this. Contrary to the doctrinal soul-searching after Vietnam, the pivot entails a rapid de-prioritisation of US land power. As John Mearsheimer predicted at the annual conference of the US Army War College, the rise of China completely reshuffles the cards amongst the different armed services.
But where does this leave the European Allies? As the National Security Agency must have found out already, the Europeans are not planning to join the Americans in the Far East any time soon. After all, they have a turbulent neighbourhood to watch out for. Hot spots such as the Sahel and the Horn of Africa continue to pose strategic challenges. It therefore seems clear that the capability mix European armed forces require must display more continuity than the one across the Atlantic.
In my new book, I argue that recent operations undertaken by European forces have given birth to a generic blueprint for designing military campaigns. This template is based on a combination of deterrence and capacity building. Tactical displays of air power and land patrols are designed to influence the cost-benefit calculations of local spoilers. At the same time, European trainers are engaged in reinforcing local capacity for maintaining security. The growing number of military training missions – including the one to be pursued in Afghanistan post-2014 – suggests that this template has lost none of its appeal. While it is not devoid of problems, it does offer a credible strategy for containing instability on Europe’s southern flank.
Budgetary constraints suggest that European military interventionism is likely to become more selective in the years ahead. While it is true that land-centric campaigns often become prohibitively expensive, European experiences in places like Chad and Mali suggest that limited means can sometimes suffice to have a strategic effect. More importantly, as European forces cannot pivot away from their neighbourhood, European militaries must invest in joint capabilities and retain the hard-won ability to shape events on land.
Alexander Mattelaer is the Assistant Director of the Institute for European Studies at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, and the author of 'How Afghanistan has Strengthened NATO', which appeared in the December 2011–January 2012 issue of Survival. His new book, The Politico-Military Dynamics of European Crisis Response Operations, has been published by Palgrave Macmillan.