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Anticipating crises

John Kriendler examines the importance of early warning in crisis management, the Alliance's approach to early warning and NATO's new Intelligence Warning System.

Timely intervention: NATO intervened in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia* before tensions exploded into open conflict (© Crown Copyright)

Since the end of the Cold War, NATO has been on a steep learning curve. It took years - too many years - for the Alliance to take action to stop civil war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. NATO reacted far more quickly over the Kosovo crisis, but still too late to prevent ethnic cleansing and terrible human rights abuses. Most recently, the Alliance intervened in Southern Serbia and in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia* before tensions exploded into open conflict - with the result that mass bloodshed was averted, and peace maintained at a relatively low cost.

The lesson of the past decade in the Balkans and elsewhere is clear. Early warning of impending crises is vital. Early action - and the right action - is invaluable. But knowing how and when best to become involved in an emerging crisis is extremely difficult. It requires rapidly obtaining as clear a picture of the situation as possible and adopting a course of action designed to achieve the best outcome.

In recent years, many international organisations have sought to develop and improve capabilities in the field of early warning. The United Nations has, for example, established its own Humanitarian Early Warning System and the European Commission sponsors the Conflict Prevention Network. Moreover, many academic institutions, think tanks and non-governmental organisations have also built useful expertise over the years. But given that NATO has unique crisis-management capabilities, it has been particularly important for the Alliance to enhance this dimension of its activities.

The benefits of early warning of emerging crises are obvious. It provides more time to prepare, analyse and plan a response and, in the event of intervention, enhances its likelihood of success. Early warning can also contribute to the establishment of goals to be achieved, development of courses of action and their comparison, leading eventually to implementation of chosen options, and finally analysis of the reaction of the parties involved and potential scenarios. Because of the importance of early warning, crisis-management and conflict-prevention procedures focus in the early stages on information acquisition, assessment and analysis.

Cold War procedures

During the Cold War, NATO used a system of indications and warning, which could provide early warning of strategic attack and track developments. At the time, "indications" were essentially steps an adversary would have to take to prepare for a military action and which could be expected to become visible to outside observers at some stage. "Warning" was the formal alerting of political and military decision-makers and commanders to the potential for crisis or attack. The indications and warning system used during the Cold War focused largely, although not exclusively, on military indications that tended to be largely quantitative.

Changes in the security environment at the end of the Cold War obliged NATO to revise its indications-and-warning methodology. As a result of reduced risk of armed conflict between states and increased risk of conflict within states, the Alliance has broadened its approach to early warning in a number of ways. Firstly, the range of potential risks addressed has been extended well beyond the threat of direct aggression to Alliance territory to encompass non-military risks and even unconventional threats such as terrorism. Secondly, increased interaction with members of the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC) further contributes to early warning. And thirdly, NATO has developed a new Intelligence Warning System (NIWS).

In general terms, NATO seeks to obtain early warning through a variety of mutually reinforcing processes. These include meetings of the North Atlantic Council, the Policy Coordination Group, the Political Committee and the Military Committee, as well as other committees, in which Allies share intelligence and information about potential and ongoing crises. In addition, EAPC meetings and meetings of committees in EAPC format, provide a forum for Allies and Partners to share information which can contribute to early warning and to consult on developing crises. And regional working groups, meeting under the auspices of the Political Committee, bring together national experts once or twice a year, usually with Partners, to examine trends in different geographic regions.

Contacts with individual Partners, where they have the opportunity to discuss potential crises of concern to them, provide another opportunity to gather information on impending crises. Allies also share intelligence both with other Allies and with Partners in the context of ongoing crisis-response operations and Partnership-for-Peace activities. NATO's Situation Centre monitors incoming messages and open-source information around the clock. And NATO's International Military Staff's Intelligence Division monitors developments - on the basis of intelligence reporting by Alliance member states - in particular through the Current Intelligence and Warning Branch.

The NIWS was designed to be a much more inclusive warning system than its predecessor and to take account of the risks identified in the Alliance's 1999 Strategic Concept. To accomplish this task, the NIWS is based on the informed judgement of analysts. Accordingly and in contrast to its predecessor, the NIWS relies on qualitative analytical processes, not the more mechanical measurement of multiple, precisely defined and specific events. As such, it covers not only threats to NATO, but also a wide variety of military and non-military risk indicators, including uncertainty and instability in and around the Euro-Atlantic area, and the possibility of regional crises on the periphery of the Alliance. Moreover, it both provides warning of any developing instability, crisis, threats, risks, or concerns that could impact on the security interests of the Alliance and it monitors de-escalation of a crisis.

Here, it is important to understand that "warning" is not an event, but a cyclical process in which an identifiable crisis, risk or threat is assessed, a warning problem is defined and a critical indicator list is developed. Clearly, this is more difficult in today's more complex and varied security environment. Next, the critical indicators are continuously monitored and the assessment matrix is updated as required. Warning is issued, and the cycle resumes. The crucial sub-text to this process is recognition that the effectiveness of warning is dependent upon the extent to which it is integrated into the crisis-management and response measures available to decision-makers.

Identifying critical indicators

The crises that shattered European stability in the decade following the end of the Cold War did not come as a surprise to analysts of conflict. In Kosovo and in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,* for example, an eruption of violence had been forecast for many years before latent tensions boiled over into bloodshed. Indeed, the United Nations had even placed a small force, UNPREDEP, in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia* between 1992 and 1998 to help stabilise the country in its early years as an independent state and prevent it disintegrating in warfare in a similar fashion to other former Yugoslav republics. The key issue for early-warning systems, however, is determining the factors that will correctly predict when political tension will degenerate into crisis and helping to shape a crisis response that will inevitably be based largely on subjective, analytical judgements.

Knowing how and when best to become involved in an emerging crisis is extremely difficult

NIWS methodology calls for analysts to decide well in advance which events, or critical indicators, can serve as decision points for any given warning problem. These events are intended to be so critical that, if they occur, they indicate a significant change in ongoing developments and therefore require a comparable change in judgement of the likely end state of the emerging situation. By focusing on these critical indicators, analysts no longer base judgements on a mathematical, mechanical and quantitative approach to indications and warning. Instead, they can provide qualitative, forward-looking, predictive assessments for the outcome of a clearly defined situation.

By definition, a critical indicator is intended to be a significant clue about what is happening and the eventual end state of a series of events. An obvious example in the case of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was the leadership situation. Would President Slobodan Milosevic step down, win re-election or be overthrown? To fulfil their intended functions, critical indicators must be defined so that they occur early in the evolution of the crisis in such a way that, if identified, decision-makers have time to react. They also have to be reliable so that policy-makers are willing to take decisions based on them. In general, indicators must be collectable and identifiable, so there is a realistic expectation of perceiving them if they exist.

No matter how well-structured an early-warning system, its success depends, above all, on the judgement and vision of political authorities. Ultimately, the political will to act, individually and collectively, and, if necessary, to intervene is more important than any early-warning tool. However, political will depends on more than an analysis of the likely evolution of a conflict and is clearly affected by a host of other issues, including electoral cycles, competing domestic priorities and public opinion. It is especially difficult to muster in the early stages of a crisis, when the parameters and stakes involved may not yet be clear, and may still be lacking much later.

With the NIWS, NATO has a rigorous and reliable mechanism for anticipating crises and, if necessary, taking action to prevent crisis and conflict. At the same time, the Alliance is putting in place the political and military tools for acting upon warning indicators, in the form of high-readiness, rapidly deployable headquarters and forces. Together, these complementary capabilities should help ensure that the Alliance continues to play an effective role in crisis management.

* Turkey recognises the Republic of Macedonia with its constitutional name.

Read more: crisis, Serbia, balkans
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