Despite the doom and gloom about the Afghanistan campaign, in political and military terms NATO may yet emerge as a leaner and more effective organisation.

In a farewell speech in Brussels, outgoing US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates painted a bleak future for NATO. The Alliance’s failings are well known: NATO members appear increasingly divided ‘between those willing and able to pay the price and bear the burdens of Alliance commitments, and those who enjoy the benefits of NATO membership … but don’t want to share the risks and the costs’. Budget pressures are bringing closer the prospect of ‘collective military irrelevance’. Should European leaders not redress this state of affairs, the United States may reconsider its underwriting of European security, which would herald, in Gates’s words, ‘a dim, if not dismal future of the transatlantic Alliance’.

The travails of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan are often cited as evidence for NATO’s dismal future. Yet a closer look at that experience suggests that the Alliance can adapt to difficult circumstances, albeit only in supertanker style. It may take years of small-step decisions, but the ship can change course. This is not to say the Afghan campaign is going swimmingly (far from it), but the health of the strategic dialogue in the Alliance is improving rather than deteriorating. In spite of all the doom and gloom about the campaign itself, and without denying the many challenges the Alliance confronts, it can be said that in political and military terms, NATO may yet emerge from its Afghan crucible a leaner and more effective security organisation.

The evolution of ISAF

Afghanistan became NATO’s top priority in June 2004 after the heads of state and government approved a plan to provide security assistance across the entire Afghan territory. This document – SACEUR Operation Plan (OPLAN) 10302 – outlined a counterclockwise geographical expansion of ISAF in four stages. The first two stages, which saw ISAF expand into northern and western regions, passed relatively smoothly. Things quickly went wrong, however, after NATO foreign ministers approved a revised OPLAN for stages three and four in December 2005, instructing ISAF to deploy into the unruly southern and eastern parts of Afghanistan. As it became clear that Afghanistan was facing a full-blown insurgency, difficult debates about appropriate resourcing and burden-sharing plunged NATO into an existential crisis.

Under tremendous pressure to shore up a campaign that seemed to be faltering, the Alliance embarked on a corrective process from the end of 2007. As a first step, the defence ministers called for the development of a so-called Comprehensive Strategic Political Military Plan. While this document was too general to serve as an instructing directive for the military chain of command, it was relatively successful in bridging the existing politico-military divide within NATO Headquarters, as well as drawing the national capitals into the Afghanistan debate. In this way, the document gradually became a kind of benchmarking tool. As one staff officer put it, ‘we wanted to develop a mechanism for measuring progress in a way the ministers can understand’. While it would be easy to dismiss this effort as merely a bureaucratic exercise, it contributed greatly to improving the situational understanding.

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Alexander Mattelaer is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for European Studies in Brussels.

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

December 2011-January 2012

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