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Testing Times: NATO War-Making in Afghanistan and Beyond

In document DIIS REPORT (Page 115-126)

11. Testing Times: NATO War-Making in Afghanistan

the task and not prepared for its primary mission: to protect the population from the worst effects of the war. Ten years on, was NATO any better prepared? Did the Western allies do a better job of it?

Saving states

NATO was prepared at the most basic level of understanding why it was in Afghanistan.

The 1990s saw western states fight a series of humanitarian ‘wars of choice’ – Bosnia, Somalia, Kosovo, and East Timor. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Iraq contained from 1991, surplus western military power was available for humanitarian use. At the same time, the west could pick and choose when to project that power.

9/11 changed everything. State failure and murderous regimes, even in the farthest reaches of the world, were no longer merely humanitarian challenges. Ill-governed spaces were launch pads for transnational terrorist attacks. 9/11 was a wake-up call for the west: it could no longer afford to ignore the most miserable parts of the world.

This, in turn, created a new logic for western military intervention. Unlike the 1990s, when intervention followed a humanitarian logic of selective and often minimal com-mitment, post 9/11 western military intervention would follow a national security logic. The purpose is not to ‘save strangers’ but to save states – to stop terrorists from setting up shop in failing states. This is the logic underpinning the NATO effort in Afghanistan. NATO is clear: it is not waging war to make life better for Afghans, but to secure the country against the return of the Taliban and their erstwhile Al Qaeda allies. NATO’s New Strategic Concept affirms the place of this logic in Alliance thinking, in recognising the importance of state building, and of stabilising states beyond Europe through strategic engagement and partnership.

The emerging character of conflict

Was NATO prepared in terms of understanding the character of the wars it faced in the post 9/11 world? Scholars, statesmen and soldiers spent much of the 1990s trying to figure out the character of the ‘new wars’ that were demanding so much western attention. These wars were seen as new in that they were fuelled by a lethal mix of greed and grievance rather than driven by a clash of national interests, and were waged by irregular armed groups within and across state borders, rather than between states by their professional militaries. Of course, wars of this character are not really new, they have raged across history. But the emphasis on irregular war is new after two centuries of western preoccupation with major state-on-state war.

Last year the British Ministry of Defence produced a major study on ‘the Future Character of War’ (FCOC), which informed the 2010 British Security and Stra-tegic Defence Review.1 Much that is in the FCOC is recognisable from the ‘new wars’ of the 1990s. Hence, the new British Chief of the Defence Staff, Gen. Sir David Richards, prefers the expression ‘the emerging character of war.’ Whilst immensely complex in actuality, the emerging character of conflict can be boiled down to three concepts.

The first is ‘3 Block War’. The Commandant of the US Marine Corps, Gen. Charles Krulak, minted this concept in order to capture the complexity of tasks for western forces engaged in stabilising states. The basic idea is that a marine unit must be pre-pared to simultaneously undertake a variety of operations – humanitarian assistance, peacekeeping, and war-fighting – all within an area of operations that is the size of three city blocks. Crucially, this concept highlights the need for intervention forces to be able to fight, even if deployed on a humanitarian mission.

The second concept, coined by retired British Lt. Gen. Rupert Smith, is ‘war among the people’. Of course, throughout history war has often gone on around and in populated areas. But the new wars are waged in populated areas to a greater degree than in the past. The ‘battlefields’ of these wars are simply cluttered with civilians and their objects. Populations are also often the target of the warring sides in new wars, to be exploited and coerced or, in the extreme, to be terrorised and slaughtered. In writing about new wars Smith was reflecting on his experience as the commander of the UN force in Bosnia in 1995. This led him to emphasise another aspect of such wars among the people, namely the glare of the world’s media. Hence, he notes wryly, one may speak of the ‘theatre of war’ in two senses – the conventional military sense of the overall area of operations, but also in the more real sense that new wars are played to audiences. Today’s wars involving western forces are invariably waged in media-rich environments and attract the attention of multiple audiences: local, regional, home, and international.2

The third concept emerged in the mid-to-late 2000s and, in particular, from the les-sons of the Israeli war against Hezbollah in 2006. When the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) launched an offensive against Hezbollah, they were prepared to fight against an irregular opponent. Hezbollah put up a largely conventional defence, involving fortifications and combined arms operations, and some surprisingly high-end capa-bilities including a missile attack on an Israeli warship. In essence, the IDF quickly became drawn into a conventional war but were slow to realise this, and slow to

respond appropriately. The 2006 Lebanon War showed the dangers of underestimat-ing irregular opponents: technologically enabled, irregular opponents are able to present conventional threats. The lessons is that western militaries must be prepared for ‘hybrid warfare’, that is wars against opponents able to mix unconventional with conventional modes, means and methods of war in order to exploit vulnerabilities in western intervention forces.3

In Afghanistan NATO finds itself engaged in a war that requires forces to support humanitarian operations and engage in combat operations at the same time and in the same operational space. In other words, to win hearts and minds NATO forces must be prepared to start rebuilding within hours of clearing insurgents out of an area. This is war among the people. Indeed, the key terrain on which NATO is fo-cusing the fight is precisely where people are concentrated. This is also a war that is being conducted under the close watch of the world’s media. Finally, in this war the opponent is waging a hybrid campaign, mixing conventional and unconventional tactics and capabilities. Indeed, it is hybrid in an even deeper sense in that behind the shield of its military campaign, the Taliban has sought to build a shadow government to threaten the very functions of the Afghan state.

NATO’s strategic performance

So how has NATO done in Afghanistan? We may keep two scorecards on this – one on NATO’s performance at the strategic level, and the other on NATO’s perform-ance in operations.

As a global security actor NATO is a provider of military capability. Here we obvi-ously need to distinguish between the US effort and the NATO effort in Afghanistan.

In brief, NATO stepped in when the United States became distracted by Iraq. Even before the coalition had conquered Afghanistan in 2002, US Central Command was turning its attention to preparing for the 2003 war against Iraq. NATO took charge of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in 2003, then confined to protecting Kabul. Hence NATO took responsibility for the whole of Afghanistan when ISAF expanded in stages to the north, west, south and east over 2005–06.

ISAF encountered fierce resistance from insurgents when it pushed into the south and east. And here NATO held the line, especially the British, Canadians, Dutch and Danish in the south, as well as the Americans in the east. In sum, for all the criti-cisms of the scale of European military effort – that it did not match US force uplift under President Obama, and the caveats that prevent full use of German, Italian and

Spanish forces in the north and west – NATO held the insurgents in place while America was focused on Iraq.

On the downside, NATO has been a passive strategic actor. NATO has a politi-cal–military plan for Afghanistan. But in terms of strategy, it takes its lead from the United States. The transition strategy for Afghanistan has been defined by the United States. Formally, the Afghan government determined the end date for transition to Afghan security lead. In reality the transition process, conditions and timetable will be defined by the Obama administration with guidance from the American-dominated command in Kabul. Many European states – Britain and Denmark included – lack a proper national strategy for Afghanistan, defining national interests and purpose in the war, and matching resources to these.4 So perhaps it is not so surprising that NATO lacks a proper strategy and follows America’s lead.

A related problem is NATO’s failure to fashion a credible strategic narrative to explain to NATO’s publics, as well as to Afghan and regional publics, why NATO is fight-ing in Afghanistan. Most Afghans are mystified by the western states’ involvement in Afghanistan.5 Theories abound. A favourite is that the West wants to get hold of Afghanistan’s rich deposits of strategic minerals. European publics are little more convinced by the war, if declining support for the war is anything to go by. Certainly the British government has failed over a number of years to come up with a compelling storyline. The claim that Britain is fighting in Afghanistan to keep terrorists off the streets of Birmingham is widely ridiculed. And yet, the counter-terrorism mission is widely accepted in the United States. This suggests the scale of the challenge facing NATO. It is unlikely that one strategic narrative can be made to fit all member states.

And yet, NATO needs a common account of what it is doing in Afghanistan and why, in order to avoid 28 national narratives, which risk contradicting each other.

NATO’s operational performance

If NATO has largely failed as a strategic actor in Afghanistan, it has got better at operations. From 2005–2009 there was poor unity of effort and poor practice in terms of counterinsurgency (COIN). When Gen. Stanley McChrystal took com-mand of the campaign in the summer of 2009 he found ISAF waging not one war but five, with each regional command doing its own thing. Indeed, unity of effort was poor even within many regional commands. For instance, RC-South did little more than dish out assets not held at the national task force level, such as air power and the regional battlegroup. It did not command, in the proper sense, the American,

British, Canadian and Dutch task forces in its sector, nor did it have an overall plan for Helmand, Kandahar and Uruzgan. McChrystal imposed unity of command on the campaign, principally through a new three star headquarters – ISAF Joint Com-mand – that was specifically tasked with managing the conduct of the war. Through this, ISAF has achieved improved unity of effort. This is most clearly seen in the designation of Helmand and Kandahar as campaign ‘main effort’ and, to this end, the concentration of forces in the south (see table 1).

Table 1. ISAF force levels by regional command6

NATO forces have also got better in their approach to COIN. Here too, McChrystal deserves most credit. When he took over McChrystal discovered a campaign that had stalled. His initial assessment, delivered to Secretary of Defence Robert Gates in August, was that “the overall situation is deteriorating”; that ISAF faced “a resilient and growing insurgency” and “a crisis of confidence among Afghans”.7 Accordingly, McChrystal set out to ‘redefine the fight’. Under its previous US commander, General David McKiernan, ISAF was focused on defeating the insurgency, and this resulted in a fairly conventional military campaign. McChrystal brought the campaign back to classic COIN principles. He understood that the conflict was essentially a political struggle rather than a purely military one. The greatest threat to stability in Afghani-stan was not from insurgent violence but from insurgent shadow government, as well as local power struggles. McChrystal concluded that the key to eventual success in the campaign was to demonstrate to the Afghan people that their government could protect and provide for them. He declared that “ISAF’s center of gravity is the will and ability to provide for the needs of the population ‘by, with and through’ the Afghan government”.8



















McChrystal brought in a whole new approach to operations, which he dubbed

‘population-centric COIN.’ The aim was to ‘connect with the people’, in order to build relationships with Afghan partners and the local population.9 Popula-tion-centric COIN involved two new operational priorities. First and foremost was for ISAF to ‘protect the population’ from violence, intimidation and corrup-tion. The second imperative was to accelerate ANSF development and owner-ship of Afghan security through ‘embedded partnerowner-ship’ of ISAF with ANSF.

Both measures would enable ISAF to forge better relationships with Afghan stakeholders. Tactically this required ISAF forces to assume more tactical risk by getting out of forward operating bases and armoured vehicles, and getting closer to Afghans.

McChrystal was able to drive ‘population-centric COIN’ down into ISAF. A key priority in protecting the population was protecting civilians from misdirected ISAF force. A new culture of restraint, especially in the use of NATO air power, has ensured that civilian casualties did not rise over 2009 and into the first half of 2010, even though there was a major increase in the tempo of ISAF operations. All ISAF field commands practice embedded partnering with Afghan security forces with varying degrees of success. For instance, in a major operation to clear insurgent strongholds in central Helmand in early 2010, partnering between ISAF and ANA worked better in planning than in operations, and was more extensive with the British in northern Nad-e-Ali than with the US Marines in Marjah. Embedded partnering is especially important in the context of an army that is growing rapidly with some risk to force quality; indeed, the basic training regime was reduced from ten to eight weeks in order to speed up army growth. The Afghan National Police (ANP) is also growing fast and is in even worse condition in terms of corruption, drug abuse, poor discipline, and ethnic tensions within the force. And yet the ANP are even more important than the ANA to NATO’s transition strategy for Afghanistan, because ultimately it is the ANP that will be responsible for holding ground that has been cleared of insurgents by the army. In 2009 ISAF was focused on partnering with the ANA. In 2010 all regional commands now recognise the imperative to partner with ANP to improve them in the field.

Of course, there is still variation in roles and performance by individual NATO militaries in the field. The Germans in RC-North are still hindered by national ca-veats in their ability to get out and about on the ground. The Italians and Spanish in RC-West lack the capabilities to take the fight to the insurgents. But ISAF has got around this by deploying US task forces into these regions to undertake those parts

of the mission that European militaries are unable to perform. Thus American special operations forces have been hunting down insurgents in the North and the West with considerable success. Indeed, across the whole theatre, coalition special forces are operating at three to four times the tempo than they did in Iraq in 2005–2006. Over a 90-day period up to early November 2010 ISAF special forces killed or captured over 3000 insurgents.

The Chief of the British Defence Staff, Gen. Sir David Richards, recently told the House of Commons Defence Committee that the insurgents are ‘getting ham-mered’ in Afghanistan. And so it would seem, especially in the South. From late 2009 to mid 2010 ISAF cleared insurgents from key areas in the south and centre of Helmand. In designating Helmand as ISAF ‘main effort’, McChrystal hoped to inflict a ‘strategic defeat’ on the Taliban. This has happened, though it has taken longer than McChrystal hoped. ISAF has now turned its attention to Kandahar city and the surrounding districts of Damn, Arghandab, Panjwaye and Zhari. The insurgents have been cleared from Damn and Arghandab. A tough fight contin-ues in Panjwaye and Zhari. Reports suggest a dramatic improvement in security in Kandahar city in October 2010. However, the sustainability of these gains in Kandahar province is unclear, especially as the clearout was helped by an earlier than usual migration of foreign fighters back to Pakistan, as customarily happens at the end of the fighting season. One presumes these fighters will return when the fighting season resumes.10

After Afghanistan

Afghanistan has tested NATO to its limits – politically, militarily and geographically.

How has NATO performed? In some respects it has done pretty well. NATO held the line in Afghanistan when the United States was preoccupied elsewhere. And even though the United States now is fully engaged, NATO continues to deliver significant command, combat, logistical and training capabilities for the war effort.

A war that lacked unity and was too conventionally focussed has been corrected.

Improved unity of effort and better counterinsurgency practice came with a new American commander. NATO commands and forces in theatre have rolled under this revived American effort.

NATO has done poorly in other respects. In comparison to the United States, the European allies have generated far less military capability, in relative as well as absolute terms. Britain has done best, with 10,000 troops in Afghanistan in 2010.

Economies and militaries of comparable size, France and Germany, have deployed far fewer troops: France has sent around 3,800 and Germany about 4,300. In ad-dition, many European militaries have sent far less capable, as well as smaller, task forces. For instance, the Italian force of almost 3,700 in Regional Command-West lacks the capability to clear routes of explosives. Finally, some European states have imposed national caveats on what their forces may be asked to do. Thus, German forces may not be deployed outside of Regional Command-North, and face restric-tions on operating at night. As noted above, ISAF has mediated these operational limitations by deploying more capable US units to augment European forces in the North and the West.

NATO’s main failure in Afghanistan has been as a strategic actor, independent of the United States. NATO effectively follows American strategy for Afghanistan. Unlike, NATO’s Kosovo War, where Britain took the lead, this war is entirely American led. Any major change in strategy originates from Washington D.C. Hence, the war was allowed to drift from 2002–2005, during America’s Iraq adventure. The insurgents were allowed to regenerate in the South and East, embryonic moves by some insurgents to reconcile were ignored, Afghan government corruption was left to fester, and nobody got a grip of a failing military campaign. It took a change in leadership in the United States to reset the strategy. NATO has also failed to fashion a compelling strategic narrative for the war to explain to its publics why the war is necessary.

What of the future then? Afghanistan is indeed a window into the future for NATO.

Future wars will have many of the characteristics of Afghanistan. NATO will be called upon again to stabilise failing states, and to secure their populations. NATO forces will find themselves conducting combat, peacekeeping and humanitarian operations in the same areas of operation. NATO will struggle to bring decisive force to bear on irregular armed opponents. At the same time, thanks to increas-ingly porous borders in most unstable regions in the world, irregular opponents will be able to acquire conventional capabilities. In short, NATO will have to be ready to fight but will likely find fighting to be a frustrating experience. Overall, future wars are unlikely to be resolvable militarily. Rather military force will be required to create the space for a political solution. Rebuilding state institutions, especially security forces, will be central to this. All of this will unfold under the world’s gaze. Indeed, strategic communications is likely to increase in importance and complexity, thanks to the information revolution and the diversification of news media.

In document DIIS REPORT (Page 115-126)