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NATO's evolving operations

James Pardew and Christopher Bennett examine how NATO's focus has shifted towards operations and the challenges ahead.

Ever more deployable forces: As demand for the kind of operations NATO specialises in increases, the Allies must decide whether, when and how to become involved, including whether the NRF should be deployed (© SHAPE)

In just over a decade, NATO has evolved from an Alliance focused on contingency planning for a high-intensity war in Central Europe into a highly operational organisation with an eclectic set of missions. Today, NATO Allies and Partners are deployed in diverse Alliance-led operations on three continents – in Africa, Asia and Europe. This surge in commitments demonstrates both the Alliance's willingness and its ability to respond to security threats wherever they occur.

Instead of being an organisation searching for an identity, as some analysts feared, the problem NATO now faces is choosing the missions it can take on out of a steady stream of operational and other requirements. This dynamic operational climate has been and continues to be an engine for reform throughout the Alliance structure. Indeed, the need to equip NATO for operations is at the heart of the Alliance's ongoing transformation. In the words of Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer: "We need forces that can react quickly, that can be deployed over long distances, and then sustained over extended periods of time."

In many ways, it is remarkable how operational the Alliance has become in what is a relatively short period of time. To be sure, progress has not always been smooth nor the debate always calm. The shift in focus has required great pragmatism, frequent improvisation and wide-ranging reform. Moreover, it has occurred at a time of expanded membership in which new members brought new perspectives, capabilities and energy to the Alliance. All along, the process has involved a steep learning curve with the pace of change ever increasing.

Initiatives to modify NATO for the missions it will likely have to undertake in the coming years include the development of the NATO Response Force (NRF); moves for the Alliance to take on a more political role especially in regions where NATO forces are deployed; and measures to forge ever closer partnerships with non-member countries and other international organisations.

Balkan violence sparks change

NATO's intervention in Bosnia and Herzegovina in summer 1995 was a turning point for the Alliance. Initially, NATO became involved in the Bosnian War in support of the United Nations to enforce economic sanctions, an arms embargo and a no-fly zone and provide military contingency planning. These measures helped moderate the conflict and save lives, but proved inadequate to end the war. By contrast, NATO's 12-day air campaign paved the way for the Dayton Agreement, the peace accord ending the Bosnian War that came into force on 20 December 1995. Under the terms of the agreement, NATO deployed peacekeepers for the first time, leading a 60 000-strong Implementation Force (IFOR).

The deployment of IFOR, which included soldiers from both NATO and non-NATO countries, was the Alliance's first major operational military engagement on land and has contributed greatly to reshaping its post-Cold War identity. The adaptation and learning process was evident in the way in which peacekeeping in Bosnia and Herzegovina under IFOR and later the successor Stabilisation Force (SFOR) evolved and provided vital lessons learned when NATO deployed the Kosovo Force (KFOR) in June 1999.

As always, military success in Bosnia and Herzegovina was closely linked to the success of the international civil programmes. The overall peace-building effort had to succeed to produce conditions for a stable and lasting peace. This reality helped forge closer links between the international security force and its civilian counterpart, the Office of the High Representative. By the time KFOR deployed, these lessons had been learned and were reflected in the mandate given to the force from the outset and the cooperative relationship that developed between KFOR and the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK).

It is remarkable how operational the Alliance has become in what is a relatively short period

After a 78-day air campaign, NATO deployed a force of 50 000 to provide a safe and secure environment for the UN administration in Kosovo. The decision to intervene without a UN mandate – one the most controversial debates in the Alliance's history – came after more than a year of fighting within Kosovo and after diplomatic efforts failed to resolve the conflict which had created a humanitarian crisis that threatened to develop into the kind of ethnic-cleansing campaigns seen earlier in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia.

Military victory was but the first step on a long road to building a durable, multi-ethnic society free from the threat of renewed conflict. In this way, in addition to helping to preserve a secure environment, the NATO-led forces in both Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo became actively involved in helping refugees and displaced persons return to their homes; seeking out and arresting individuals indicted for war crimes; and helping to reform the domestic military structures in such a way as to prevent a return to violence – all tasks requiring a long-term commitment.

It took close to three-and-a&-half years of bloodshed in Bosnia and Herzegovina and a year of fighting in Kosovo before NATO intervened to bring these conflicts to an end. In the spring of 2001, however, the Alliance became engaged, at the request of the Skopje authorities, in an effort to defuse an escalating conflict in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.* In this way, NATO appointed for the first time in a conflict area a senior diplomat to represent the Alliance on the ground and act as the Secretary General's personal envoy.

The ad hoc creation of such senior civilian NATO representation had not been envisioned during the Cold War. Moreover, the role of the senior civilian representative went well beyond that of the political advisers who had been integrated into the military commands of earlier operations.

In the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,* the NATO senior civilian representative headed a crisis-management team dispatched to negotiate a cease-fire with the National Liberation Army (NLA), an armed group of ethnic Albanian rebels. Working closely with representatives of the European Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the United States, the team succeeded in persuading the NLA to agree a cease-fire and to support the ongoing political negotiation process. These NATO talks complemented the Framework Agreement under which NATO deployed forces initially to oversee the NLA's disarmament and then to help build confidence.

From this first requirement for a political representative in an operational theatre, NATO has since deployed a senior civilian representative to the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan (ISAF) and to Pakistan during humanitarian relief operations in 2005.

NATO handed responsibility for its operation in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia* to the European Union in April 2003, while retaining a military headquarters in the country assisting the Skopje authorities with defence reform and preparations for Alliance membership. Likewise, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, NATO handed responsibility for day-to-day security to the European Union in December 2004 but retains a military headquarters in the country focusing on defence reform and preparing the country for membership of the Partnership for Peace. Meanwhile, NATO still has some 17 000 troops in KFOR, which remains the Alliance's largest operation. (For more on NATO's operations in the former Yugoslavia, see Deepening relations by Gabriele Cascone and Joaquin Molina.)

Developments since 9/11

Since the terrorist attacks against the United States of 11 September 2001, NATO's crisis-management and operational capabilities have been in increasing demand. Although the Alliance did not contribute directly to Enduring Freedom, the operation to oust the Taliban and al Qaida from Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, NATO did provide AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) aircraft to the United States to free up US assets for that campaign and launched Active Endeavour, its ongoing operation to detect, disrupt and deter terrorist activity in the Mediterranean, at that time. Moreover, subsequently NATO has frequently been called upon to deploy AWACS aircraft during major international gatherings such as the Athens and Turin Olympics and the European and World Cups in football.

NATO's first three peace-support operations took place in Europe, yet the need for long-term peace-building is global. NATO foreign ministers recognised this at a meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland, in May 2002 agreeing that: "To carry out the full range of its missions, NATO must be able to field forces that can move quickly to wherever they are needed, sustain operations over distance and time, and achieve their objectives." This decision effectively paved the way for NATO to deploy for the first time outside the Euro-Atlantic area in Afghanistan. Subsequently, the Alliance has become involved in both Iraq and in Darfur, Sudan.

Since August 2003, NATO has led the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), a UN-mandated force tasked with helping provide security in and around Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, in support of the Afghan Transitional Authority and the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. ISAF also assists in developing reliable security structures; identifying reconstruction needs; and training and building up future Afghan security forces.

In October 2003, a new UN Security Council Resolution paved the way for ISAF to expand its mission beyond Kabul to help the government of Afghanistan extend its authority to the rest of the country and provide a safe and secure environment conducive to free and fair elections, the spread of the rule of law and the reconstruction of the country. Since then, NATO has been steadily expanding its presence via the creation of so-called Provincial Reconstruction Teams, international teams combining both civilian and military personnel.

ISAF currently has some 9 000 troops in Afghanistan providing security assistance to about half of Afghanistan with nine PRTs in the north and west of the country. In the coming months, NATO will be further expanding its presence in the south of the country, deploying an additional 6000 personnel, thereby bringing the total number to around 15 000. (For more on the NATO-led operation in Afghanistan, see Building stability in Afghanistan by Mihai Carp).

Since shortly after the Alliance's June 2004 Istanbul Summit, NATO has been training Iraqi personnel in Iraq and supporting the development of security institutions to help the country develop effective armed forces and provide for its own security. The Alliance has also helped establish an Iraqi Joint Staff College near Baghdad focused on leadership training and is coordinating equipment donations to Iraq.

Together with the European Union, NATO has been assisting the African Union expand its peacekeeping mission in Darfur since June 2005. The Alliance has been airlifting AU peacekeepers into the region and providing training to the African Union in running a multinational military headquarters and managing intelligence.

In addition to its peace operations, NATO has been playing an increasingly important role in humanitarian relief since the creation of the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre in 1998. This Centre provides the focal point for coordinating the disaster-relief efforts of the 46 NATO Allies and Partners in the event of natural or technological disaster on the territory of a member of the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina at the end of August last year, for example, NATO Allies responded to a US request for help, airlifting relief supplies to the United States. This involved the NRF operationally for the first time.

In response to last year's devastating earthquake in and around Pakistan, in which some 80 000 people are believed to have died, the Alliance launched an intensive three-month relief operation. This included airlifting close to 3500 tons of supplies to Pakistan, the deployment of engineers, medical units and specialist equipment, and again involved the NRF. (For more on NATO's disaster-relief work, see NATO's growing humanitarian role by Maurits Jochems.) To be effective when deploying far from Alliance territory, NATO has adopted a series of measures aimed at ensuring that the Alliance is equipped for the full spectrum of modern military missions. This comprises a capabilities initiative, the Prague Capabilities Commitment, by which Allies pledged to make specific improvements in critical areas such as strategic air-and sealift. It also involves the development of the NRF, the spearhead force giving the Alliance the capacity to respond quickly to crises. And it includes the streamlining of NATO's military command structure, including the creation of Allied Command Operations, to make it more flexible and more useable for 21st century contingencies, as well as the creation of an Operations Division at NATO Headquarters.

Emerging issues

As NATO has become increasingly operational, new issues have come on to the Alliance's agenda. In this way, NATO is having to become a more political organisation and to forge effective working relations with like-minded Partner countries and relevant international organisations. The Alliance is also having to improve defence-planning and force-generation processes to match capabilities to the commitments it is taking on, as well as examining ways in which operations are financed. And in theatre, NATO has to address the problem of restrictions imposed by Allies on the use of their forces and equipment, on the one hand, and the need for quality intelligence, on the other. Moreover, as demand for the kind of operations NATO specialises in increases, the Allies must decide whether, when and how to become involved, including whether the NRF should be deployed.

Ever since NATO launched its first peace-support operation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Allied militaries have worked together with the armed forces of troop-contributing Partner countries and the Alliance has forged working partnerships with international organisations such as the European Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the United Nations. To date, the Partner countries that have contributed most to Allied operations are themselves from Europe. But as the geographic scope of NATO's operations expands, it will be increasingly important to forge global partnerships with like-minded countries such as Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea. Indeed, this was a theme of Secretary General de Hoop Scheffer's speech at the February 2006 Munich Conference on Security Policy. It is equally important to develop and formalise relations with all relevant international actors, including regional organisations such as the African Union.

To provide the resources to ensure its success, improving defence-planning and force-generation processes is vital. To this end, Allied foreign ministers agreed in December 2005 a document, entitled Comprehensive Political Guidance, seeking to harmonise the various "disciplines" involved in designing, developing and fielding capabilities. This document will likely be made public at this year's Riga Summit in November.

Concerning the financing of operations, NATO is currently examining ways to introduce more common funding, possibly including the procurement of common assets along the lines of the AWACS fleet. This is in contrast to the current approach whereby "costs lie where they fall". This issue came to the fore in the wake of the NRF's deployment to Pakistan, since those countries participating in the NRF at the time were obliged to meet the costs of its deployment. In the words of Secretary General de Hoop Scheffer at the Munich Security Conference: "Participation in the NRF is something like a reverse lottery: if your numbers come up, you actually lose money. If the NRF deploys while you happen to be in the rotation, you pay the full costs of the deployment of your forces."

As NATO broadens its operational experience, nations are moving to eliminate or reduce the restrictions they place on the ways in which their contributions to operations may be used. These include preventing troops and/or equipment from being involved in certain activities, such as crowd control. This is because the effect of these restrictions is to complicate the operational commander's task and necessitate the deployment of additional forces and capabilities to compensate. Here, the situation is steadily improving and countries are reducing national caveats as they become used to the complexities of operations.

The upsurge in violence in Kosovo in March 2004 highlighted both the problem caused by restrictions on the use of forces and the importance of quality intelligence. The rioting effectively took the Alliance by surprise and national caveats hampered the immediate response. Moreover, the need for good intelligence and rapid responses in the event of unrest is even greater in Afghanistan, where NATO forces in PRTs are deployed to isolated areas.

Looking ahead, the pressure on NATO to take on even more operations is likely to increase. Indeed, the Alliance is in many ways a victim of its own success. There are, however, limits to what NATO can do and a danger that the Alliance may undermine its own standing by taking on more than it can successfully accomplish. NATO is neither a global policeman nor a global humanitarian relief organisation and is certainly not an alternative to the United Nations. It does, nevertheless, have the ability to convert what is usually limited political will and almost invariably scarce resources into effective international action in those situations where the 26 Allies agree on the need to intervene.

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