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Military Frustration Simmers Toward Some NATO Allies

Lack of Political Will Creating Military Consequences In Afghanistan

By Steve Schippert | September 28, 2007

You won't hear it outside private military circles - at least you won't hear it from them - but long-murmured grumblings are beginning to crescendo regarding some NATO allies' small relative number and timid nature of contributions in Afghanistan. Behind the scenes, such comments and discussions are usually well beyond earshot of the media. It is, after all, a political issue, not a military issue. And the military services are generally careful not to tread into political territory. But the political affairs and decisions of some are beginning to be perceived as having very real military consequences on the ground in Afghanistan.

Though not publicly voiced, the internal military consternation and dissatisfaction stems from various European NATO members' reluctance to actually engage the enemy, a reflection of political leadership rather than the uniformed soldiers actually deployed. This dissatisfaction - primarily shared among US, Canadian and British commanders and troops - is the source of the non-specific reference in a statement from the chairman of NATO’s military committee. Canadian Air Force Gen. Raymond Henault reminded that all of NATO’s member nations agreed to the Afghanistan mission “very clearly and very consciously,” and understood then that it would be a long commitment.

The Canadian General, who has seen his nation's military shoulder its fair share of the burden in missions, blood and lives lost, said ”There is a requirement for burden-sharing in this very significant mission for NATO.” It is a gentle public prodding of what is addressed in far more colorful and direct language privately in military circles. And it's about as close as you're going to hear publicly, too.

The DefenseNews article reported that because of "a fiercer-than-expected Taliban-led insurgency and a mounting troop death toll, some of the 37 nations in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) are reconsidering their involvement." The European members' "reconsideration" adds to the oft stated al-Qaeda claim that the West generally, and America in particular, does not have the stomach for a prolonged campaign that includes casualties.

The 'stomach' is reflective of the political will of nations' leaders, which usually can be directly traced - in democracies - to that of their respective populations. Consider from the same article:
There is in particular pressure in Canada and The Netherlands, which are deployed in the dangerous southern areas of Afghanistan, for their mandates in Afghanistan to not be extended. Some of the 37 nations, such as Austria and Switzerland, also only contribute a handful of soldiers to the 40,000-strong ISAF.
It is not beyond reasonable to speculate that, as it is for America, the European troops in question - deployed on the ground and facing the enemy in the field (or, potentially in some cases) - do not hold the same reservations as much of their reluctant populations. Again, it is a political problem, not necessarily a military problem, though the consequences are indeed military in nature. And the additional burden of those consequences are borne by the same troops privately leveling the criticism.

The imbalanced burden sharing goes far beyond simply numbers, and the grumbling that will likely never be directly publicly voiced centers more around the nature of the participation of those troops that are committed by our smaller NATO allies. Some NATO-member deployed contingents are sent with rules of engagement that discourage armed combat with enemy Taliban forces. Indeed, some are known to actually encourage disengagement from the enemy at the soonest possible time, even in self defense. NATO members whose troops are ordered to operate under such rules of engagement, in fact, rarely conduct offensive operations to press the enemy. Some seemingly never.

For instance, when patrols are conducted by such members' forces and they are engaged by an aggressive enemy, the defensive objective can be - and is - perceived as one whose goal is to disengage as soon as possible and retreat to garrison at the earliest avail. This generalized description lies at the heart of the (publicly) unspoken outright frustration of largely US, Canadian and British troops and commanders in theater.

Such NATO-member unwillingness exacerbates other challenges facing Afghanistan and the mission there.

Henault said force needed more maneuver troops, teams and helicopters to mentor the fledgling Afghan forces.

To this end, the NATO Commander in Afghanistan, US General Dan McNeill, fears that Afghan troops are 'likely to lose British gains' in Helmand province. "I think there is some chance of that because the Afghan national security forces have not been as successful in holding as we would like them to be," Gen. McNeill said. "We are likely to have to do some of this work again."

With greater commitment from other NATO allies, such gains would be at considerably less risk than they are now as the Afghan National Army (ANA) matures and solidifies as a capable and more independent military force. Such professional military maturation is not something that can be addressed overnight, neither in Afghanistan nor Iraq. But compensating for this known weakness can and should happen responsibly and reflexively through those who have signed on to the Afghanistan mission. But it is not.

Granted the military forces of small nations can never and should never be expected to shoulder the same burdens and commitments as those of the larger nations. But the problem is far deeper than that.

Simply increasing NATO numbers is not the answer. Even if smaller NATO members triple their troop levels in Afghanistan, they cannot simply continue to operate with the current assorted timid and risk-averse rules of engagement policies that often require disengagement and retreat rather than the engagement and defeat of a ruthless enemy. This accomplishes nothing. This much the upstart Afghan National Army can accomplish without much assistance.

Consider the Radio Netherlands report of a 'Tougher Taliban in western Uruzgan' province, neighboring Helmand.
bq. One of the problems the Afghan, Dutch and American troops in Dihrawud district [of Uruzgan] are facing is an enemy which is well-organised, well-trained and heavily armed. Quite a difference from the 'amateur' Taliban militias Dutch and other NATO troops also encounter. General Berlijn:

"We have seen an improvement of their tactics and procedures. A year ago, 'amateur soldiers' was maybe a good way to describe them. We now see they are much better [trained]. (...) We know there are foreign fighters there and we think that these fighters train the Taliban. It's something that we take very seriously."

And while the Dutch contingent is certainly small, the NATO member's Chief of Defence says that the Dutch are "in contact with NATO to see if the NATO chain of command is of the opinion that the region should be reinforced." Why?

General Berlijn declined to reveal the nationality of the foreign fighters in Western Uruzgan. But last week, Radio Netherlands found out in Uruzgan itself that the presence of fighters from Pakistan and Bosnia is known beyond any doubt - in fact, prisoners have been taken from their ranks and handed over to the Afghan authorities. It is assumed that Chechen fighters are also active in Dihrawud district.

Considering the aggressive make-up of the growing number of battle-hardened foreign fighters from Pakistan, Chechnya and Bosnia, the private reaction to such a statement seeking reinforcement is likely a cynical, "Yeah. Try reinforcing Dihrawud with Americans or Canadians instead of from timid central Europeans."

The troops from these nations are professional and capable. It is unfortunate that they are hamstrung by their respective political leadership's unwillingness to confront even al-Qaeda or the Taliban.

Afghanistan cannot be popularly dismissed as 'not central' to the 'War on Terror.' This is the former home of those who brought down the Twin Towers and gleefully slaughtered nearly 3,000 civilians who committed the sin of going to work in America. And those fine gentlemen have simply moved next door to Pakistan.

For thousands, no more is the daily commute through the tunnels and over the bridges into the heart of Manhattan. But rest assured, their slaughterers have assumed their collective commute, executing it over the badlands of western Pakistan into the familiar terrains of Afghanistan. And still, much of Europe's NATO members drag their political feet, surely hoping that America, Britain, Canada, Australia and the ever-tough Poles can settle things before they are prodded into any meaningful contribution.

Afghanistan is decidedly not a Blue Hat mission for corrupt and quick-to-retreat UN forces. The conflict-averse leadership of our allies would do well to recognize this, lest the NATO alliance become no more valuable than the paper upon which the pact is printed.


1 Comment

Well now, I thought that Afghanistan was supposed to be the "good war" that we all agreed on.

My hat is off to the Canadians and Brits for helping as much as they have.

Steve, from what I understand there are really two military operations in Afghanistan:

The first is OEF (Operation Enduring Freedom), is mainly American with British assistance.

The second is the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force), which is a NATO operation and manned mainly by Europeans and Canadians.

Of the two, OEF is the more aggressive, while ISAF troops are encumbered with more restrictive rules of engagement.

I got this info from this Belmont Club post of a few months ago.

This seems to back up what you're saying. Or you back it up. Whichever.

The point though is that as you say it's not so much the number of troops, but how they're used. And it doesn't seem like our "allies" are using them to their maximum potential.

The reason for this, I am sure, is that they're casualty adverse. On the one hand this is laudable, on the other it tells me that maybe they don't care about Afghanistan so much after all.