NATO Beyond Afghanistan

By Steve Saideman

In the summit in Wales last week, NATO tried to put Afghanistan in the rearview mirror, but its legacy will continue to shape the organization for years to come. Much of the focus in Wales was on burden-sharing as it has traditionally been defined: goals focused on spending a percentage of one’s gross domestic product on defense. This is a change from the burden-sharing debates in Afghanistan, where countries varied quite significantly in what they were willing to do and where they were willing to do it, which meant that some countries paid a far higher cost in blood than others. The inequalities in what countries were willing to do, far more than what they were willing to buy, will influence how members perceive their allies and the alliance.

In NATO in Afghanistan: Fighting Together, Fighting Alone, David Auerswald and I seek to understand how NATO operates in wartime. We quickly realized that the decisions of how to operate were largely made in national capitals. Countries never give up complete control of the troops they provide to NATO commanders. Instead, each contingent has a senior officer who has the responsibility to say yes, no, or maybe when asked to do something by the NATO commander. For us, the question then turned to the rules by which these officers make the decisions.

Countries varied systematically in terms of how much discretion the troops on the ground had to follow the commands of the NATO leaders. Some countries delegated quite a bit to the officers in the field, who then largely went along with NATO orders. Some countries provided very restrictive rules (also known as caveats) that limited what the contingents could do. There were some that were mostly saying maybe, which meant a phone call home to ask for permission. The big difference we found was between those countries were a single leader or party were in power and those run by coalition governments.

In coalition governments, such as Germany or the Netherlands, the need to compromise among the competing parties in power meant the less enthusiastic parties could demand conditions in exchange for their support of the mission. Without such compromises, the mission would not receive approval and could collapse as it ultimately did for the Dutch. This bargaining among parties would be more intense if the coalition was relatively broad—including left and right wing parties—and less problematic if the coalition was narrow. Denmark proved to be the exception that proved the rule of coalition governments having more restrictions. The Danes were willing to fight in the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan—Helmand’s green zone—precisely because the parties supporting the government were from the same side of the political spectrum.

For Presidential systems and for single party parliamentary governments, the personalities and experiences of the President/Prime Minister was key. In foreign policy, these leaders did not have to bargain much to make deployment decisions, so any restrictions on the troops were due to their own inclinations or of those relatively high up the chain of command (Rumsfeld). This was most clearly illustrated by France. Until 2007, the public efforts by France in Afghanistan were highly restricted—acting as peacekeepers in Kabul, refusing to engage in more “kinetic” efforts. When Jacques Chirac was replaced by Nicolas Sarkozy, French policy in Afghanistan changed overnight, as the French forces then deployed to Kapisa and engaged the Taliban quite directly.

How does all this matter now? While Afghanistan is nearly in NATO’s past, the distrust and frustration created by the uneven burden-sharing are important today. At the summit, there was much talk of a Rapid Reaction Force, which was most confusing because it is not clear how such an enterprise can work when countries vary in how much discretion they give to their troops. I simply doubt that the Germans can pre-delegate authority to commanders when the target of the effort is not known. Likewise, the 2% of GDP debate was renewed, and Canada resisted mightily. Prime Minister Stephen Harper could rebuff any criticism by asking: were you fighting with us in Kandahar? Did you show up when we needed you? Indeed, Canada’s participation in the reassurance missions this summer in Romania and Poland could be reminders that Canada does not spend but it does what it can do. Canada did the hard work that many countries in NATO did not do in Afghanistan or in Libya.

While these kinds of burden-sharing problems always existed, the violence in Afghanistan made the consequences clearer to all. We can learn from the Afghanistan experience to figure out which allies are more or less likely to be reliable the next time. Our book, we think, provides some clues.

Steve Saideman is a political scientist specializing in international relations. A Fellow with the Canadian Defense and Foreign Affairs Institute, as well as a professor at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, his research and teaching focus on ethnic conflict and civil-military relations. His book, co-authored with David Auerswald, is available from the publisher,, Book Depository, and elsewhere.

About TJM

A reasonably prudent person.
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