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NATO’s mission in Afghanistan: Putting theory in practice

Victoria Nuland explains how the practical demands of NATO operations in Afghanistan have pushed the Alliance beyond its theoretical limitations.

Ambassador Victoria Nuland (© US State Department )

The American agenda for the Riga Summit is no secret. First and foremost, the United States hopes to build with our NATO Allies and Partners an alliance that delivers security in defence of our values - not just at home, but wherever our security or our values may be threatened and whenever NATO is the proper instrument to address new challenges.

Part-and-parcel of this project is our desire to see political dialogue within NATO expanded. Security challenges, wherever we confront them, should be and are talked about at NATO's big round table. Recently, the Allies have discussed problems associated with Iran, Iraq, North Korea, energy security, and Africa. When Allied Heads of State and Government meet in Riga, the conversation that they will have during the first night's dinner will reflect the solidarity of a community that comes together to face common threats.

Secondly, we hope to continue building partnerships around the world - not a NATO with global members, but a NATO that works easily and effectively with global partners who share our interests and who want to participate in NATO missions or to work on common projects.

Thirdly, the Alliance must leave its door open to those transatlantic countries that are willing to do the hard work necessary to meet NATO's performance-based standards for membership.

On the operational side, the Alliance must show that it can perform a full range of missions while meeting any threat and engaging any enemy, wherever that threat or enemy may be. Operations such as the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan require that the Alliance possess high-end military enablers like strategic airlift that allow us to get to the fight, that create a unity of effort, and that make such missions affordable.

The Alliance has faced such difficulties in the past, and overcome them. In Kosovo we started out with 15 different intelligence cells and many different headquarters. Today, we have a seamless mission because it is simply not affordable to work separately. In Afghanistan, adopting this kind of performance-based model is even more of an imperative today.

Finally, the United States hopes to expand NATO's capacity as an exporter of global security training. The Alliance has taken on missions training Afghan soldiers and policemen, Iraqi military officers, and African Union peacekeepers serving in Darfur. As we head towards Riga, we will advocate enhancing the training and cooperation measures on offer to our Mediterranean and Gulf partners, with the aim of eventually establishing a NATO cooperation centre in that part of the world.

Beyond theory

Afghanistan today provides the "why" for all of the previously mentioned initiatives and for NATO's continuing transformation. Few would have predicted, even five years ago, that all 26 Allies and 11 Partners would support more than 30 000 troops 3 000 miles from Alliance territory in making a long-term commitment to the peace and stability of that country. And only three years ago, we still posited US Senator Richard Lugar’s dichotomy, "NATO - out of area, or out of business", because if the Alliance was not up to the challenge of Afghanistan then a raison d'etre for NATO was difficult to discern.

That challenge was been met. We are there, and we will not leave until the reasons for our coming have been addressed. When Allied Heads of State and Government meet in Riga, they will contemplate an Alliance that has grown stronger both politically and operationally because, in large measure, of NATO's commitment in Afghanistan. This has resulted in a powerful irony. While North Atlantic Council documents reflect continuing disagreement over the nature and extent of the Alliance's power, the demands of everyday operations have forced NATO to blow past the theoretical limitations on its missions.

For example, the concept of NATO global partnerships - indeed, the very term - has long been controversial. The practice of global partnerships, however, is a reality today on the ground. Our Moroccan partners have stationed 400 troops in Kosovo. Meanwhile in Afghanistan, Australians and South Koreans work side-by-side with the British, the French, the Dutch, and many others.

We must respect and honour the commitments of those non-Allied countries willing to spend their blood and treasure with us in the pursuit of a common purpose. We owe it to them that their political, intelligence, and operational efforts combine seamlessly with ours.

While the concept of NATO global partnerships is controversial, the practice of global partnerships is a reality today on the ground

Similarly, NATO's relationship with other large organisations such as the United Nations, the European Union, and the African Union has been a source of controversy within the meetings rooms of NATO headquarters. Yet in Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Darfur, we are already partners.

In Afghanistan today a military mission alone will not succeed, as our commanders say and as President Hamid Karzai himself has said. We must have security married to good governance and development, and that means the EU, UN and NATO working in harmony with Afghans whether nationally, internationally, or on the ground with our Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs).

NATO is also working directly with non-governmental organisations, Afghan leaders, and tribal elders. Our PRTs field soldiers and civil reconstruction experts side-by-side. The Alliance is harvesting the lessons of Afghanistan and Kosovo by making civil-military cooperation an instrumental part of operations.

Our involvement in Afghanistan has also directly resulted in a change in Alliance thinking regarding military capabilities. During the Cold War, the responsibility of most Allies in the event of full-scale war was to hold their national territories until others could come to their aid. Now, our collective responsibility is to project power into the far-flung areas from where we know threats originate. At Riga, 14 Allies and one Partner country, Sweden, will sign up to buy C-17 aircraft, and others will purchase fractions of these planes as a means of signalling their commitment to strategic lift.

Common funding has also been a source of contention regarding projects such as deployable communications and logistics for the NATO Response Force. Should the Alliance pool its funds, or should the old principle of "costs lie where they fall" always prevail?

The truth is that our soldiers in Afghanistan are already using common logistics and communication systems because 26 Allies and 11 Partners cannot operate together without them. The Alliance recognized it and commanders have insisted on it.

Regarding intelligence, the Allies have discussed for years the need to share intelligence, but only this year have we inaugurated the Intelligence Fusion Centre in Support of NATO (collocated with the US European Command's Joint Analysis Centre near Molesworth in the United Kingdom) because Allies need it in Afghanistan. The Centre is already paying concrete benefits on the ground.

Finally, Special Forces are the wave of the future in 21st century warfare. These small and flexible formations work without much instruction and can function easily in calling down powerful mobile capabilities such as air power. The Allies understand that NATO needs better cooperation among its Special Forces. Our experience in Afghanistan has taught us that we must have common doctrine, common training, and common communications, and I hope that, as a consequence of the Riga Summit, Allies will establish a Special Forces Coordination Centre.

Unfortunately, Afghanistan has also brought bad news for the Alliance. Most Allies are stretched today in terms of their ability to deploy more forces because collectively we are not spending enough on defence. If you take the U.S. out of the equation, the aggregate amount that Allies spend on defence is 1.8 per cent of GDP, and only seven out of 26 Allies are spending the unofficial NATO floor of 2 per cent of GDP.

While we all took a peace dividend after the Cold War, the world does not appear to be a peaceful place from Washington. If the Allies do not continue to invest in our mutual security and defence, then we risk losing the high level of civilization in our countries that, too often, we take for granted.

NATO can help and is helping Allies to do more with the same number of defence euros, but we cannot do as much as we should without more money. The situation is such that some Allies have been forced into deciding whether to contribute to operations in Afghanistan or to the NATO Response Force.

The problem, of course, is that we are not faced with a choice. We must develop a deployable capability and sustain all of our current operations, keeping the promises that we have made not just to ourselves and to our people but to the fragile states that need our help, our political support, and the security only we can provide.

Beyond Riga

The Riga Summit will demonstrate that today, we have an Alliance that has taken on global responsibilities with global partners. The Allies will renew our commitment to meet the challenges to our security and our values that confront us.

The first question to be asked after Riga will be whether we can sustain our current efforts over the long term through investment and the institutionalisation of good security habits. So beyond Riga, we may investigate what more the Allies can do in the realm of what Americans call homeland security, and what some Allies call the national defence of territory. Working together, NATO Allies can help each other in homeland defence. In our quest to take the fight to the enemy, we also need to ensure that we are safe here at home.

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