international analysis and commentary

NATO’s new Strategic Concept: Afghanistan, never again?


It is no exaggeration to say that NATO’s credibility is on the line in Afghanistan, and it is in this context that the alliance is drafting its new Strategic Concept. It is worth recalling that the allied operations in Afghanistan, initiated in 2003 and currently involving around 120,000 allied troops, have been a rather traumatic experience for NATO. Neither the aerial bombings and the peacekeeping forces in the Balkans, nor the maritime operations in the Mediterranean and Somali waters, are comparable to the military efforts carried on by the NATO-led ISAF. This is so in terms of allied casualties, human and economic resources, range of operations, timeline and scale of the mission. Above all, the solidarity among allies and the functioning of NATO’s integrated military command has been put under great strain, as epitomized by the long standing and widely known dispute about national caveats to the deployment of allied troops. Therefore, the debate about the lessons to be learned from Afghanistan, and the future of similar operations, is bound to have an impact on the new Strategic Concept.

As agreed at the 2009 NATO summit, the group of experts appointed by Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, and chaired by Madeleine Albright, delivered its report last May (“NATO 2020: assured security; dynamic engagement”) which is currently feeding the negotiations within NATO committees on the official document to be released in November. Not surprisingly, the Afghanistan issue per se is not explicitly prominent in the report, since this aims to guide the alliance’s evolution in the next decade rather than deal with immediate concerns. Hence, in the list of key strategic priorities, “creating the conditions for success in Afghanistan” comes after the reaffirmation of the “collective defense” commitment, the protection from unconventional threats, and the establishment of guidelines for operations outside alliance borders.

In fact, the latter priority stems directly from the Afghan experience, with a view to limiting future operations “out-of-area”. First and foremost, it is clearly stated that NATO is a regional – not a global organization – with limited resources. Therefore, decisions on operations outside its borders shall be taken on a case-by-case basis, considering a number of factors including:

  • the extent and imminence of danger to alliance members;
  • the exhaustion or ineffectiveness of alternative steps;
  • the ability and willingness of NATO members to provide the means required for success; the involvement of partners;
  • the collateral impact on other NATO missions;
  • the degree of domestic and international support;
  • the conformity with international law;
  • the foreseeable consequences of inaction.

This is indeed a comprehensive and detailed set of conditions, which reflect not only the Afghan experience but the evolution of the alliance over two decades: after all, the 1999 Strategic Concept had already introduced among the core tasks of the alliance “crisis management” operations outside the allied territory, carried on even without the activation of the Article 5 provision on collective defense against a direct attack. In any case, strictly adhering to these criteria would make the alliance extremely selective and cautious in undertaking out-of-area operations, without ruling them out as a matter of principle.

The careful search for a balanced approach reflects the diverging views among the Allies, which can be placed into three broad categories. The first category comprises the United States, alongside the United Kingdom, Canada, Denmark and the Netherlands. These countries have constantly underlined the need to act outside the transatlantic area wherever the threat to allied security originates, and thus the necessity to make NATO forces capable of being rapidly deployed and their presence sustainable in distant theatres. The global character of threats such as terrorism – but also piracy – is an argument in favor of this approach, which requires a pro-active posture.

The second category comprises member countries such as Germany and France which have been generally much more reluctant to broaden NATO’s tasks, reach and membership. In fact, they have argued that a NATO global role would overlap with UN and/or EU roles, be bothersome to Russia and strain NATO resources. A third group of countries is constituted by new members which share borders with Russia: Poland and the Baltic states, in particular, are not against NATO’s global reach and expeditionary forces in principle, but are deeply concerned that this approach would undermine the commitment to collective defense embodied in Article 5 of the Washington Treaty. Fearing that Russia might again act as it did in Georgia in 2008, they would like to see an official reaffirmation of collective defense as the top priority of the alliance, as well as tangible steps to make the Article 5 deterrence more credible – such as contingency plans, joint exercises and pre-positioning of NATO forces and assets on their territories. All of that implies to a certain extent a shift of NATO’s political focus from the Hindu Kush to the Baltic shores.

Given these competing pressures and interests, NATO’s ongoing strategic review seem to point to an adequate compromise on the following terms. On one hand, as suggested in the Albright report, “contingency plans, focused exercises, force readiness and sound logistics” will be put in place to reassure the somewhat more exposed NATO members. On the other hand, all members should be more “willing and able” to transform their militaries into expeditionary forces and to contribute to out-of-area missions of the ISAF type. At the same time, NATO will not pursue a “global membership” policy, and will instead stick to a selective and cautious engagement outside the transatlantic area. This compromise looks good on paper, but striking a balance will prove much harder in practice, under the pressure of events.