Updated: 06-Aug-2001 NATO Review

Web edition
Vol. 49 - No. 2
Summer 2001
p. 12-15

Lessons learned

David Lightburn (1) reviews NATO's peacekeeping experience and compares how the Alliance and the United Nations are applying lessons from the Balkans.

Frontline education: NATO and the United Nations have learned very similar lessons from their experiences of peacekeeping in the Balkans
( © Reuters - 106Kb)

The early 1990s brought about dramatic change in the manner in which the international community perceived it should deal with security challenges. The demand for peacekeeping grew as the Cold War ended and a number of latent and internal ethnic, territorial and religious tensions boiled over into conflict. For the many regional and international organisations engaged in the Balkans in the 1990s, the experience has been akin to one large experimental laboratory. The two organisations most affected by their involvement in the Balkans have been NATO and the United Nations.

For the United Nations, the combination of difficult experiences in the Balkans and the challenges and realities of missions in Rwanda, Somalia and most recently East Timor led in 2000 to the creation of a panel under Ambassador Lakhdar Brahimi and the commissioning of a report on the future of UN peacekeeping. For NATO, the Balkans produced many "firsts": the first out-of-area deployment; the first shots fired in anger; the first significant cooperation with other international organisations; and the Alliance's first peacekeeping operation.

In summer 1992, the UN Secretary-General released Agenda for Peace, a document that categorised the various phases of peacekeeping and generally recognised that traditional peacekeeping was becoming far more complex, engaging many more actors than in the past. Later, in 1995 following experiences in the Balkans, Cambodia, Rwanda and Somalia, the United Nations accepted that the situation was even more challenging and complex and issued an updated version of Agenda for Peace, increasing and adjusting the number of categories and accepting limitations for the organisation, especially where peace enforcement was concerned.

NATO had helped preserve peace in Europe during the Cold War and, beginning in late 1991, sought to pursue security through dialogue, cooperation and partnership with former adversaries. The 1991 Strategic Concept made it clear that new security challenges would be multi-faceted in nature, multi-directional, and difficult to predict and assess. As this new strategy was being implemented, one of the steps agreed by Alliance foreign ministers in spring 1992 was to "support, on a case-by-case basis, in accordance with our own procedures, peacekeeping activities under the responsibility of the CSCE". Later, in December 1992, following Allied intervention in support of UN objectives in the Adriatic, NATO foreign ministers agreed formally to extend the Alliance's support in peacekeeping to the United Nations. Between 1992 and 1995, NATO became progressively engaged in the air and at sea in support of UN operations in the Balkans.

The Brahimi report, tabled in August 2000, acknowledges a major shift in the United Nations' approach, from one of neutral observer of immediate post-conflict scenarios to one of involvement in conflicts that have not yet run their course. The report also notes that the United Nations has not altered its corporate culture or its ability to address new challenges. It calls for changes, including realistic and clear peacekeeping mandates, robust rules of engagement for military forces, unity of effort, a clear and unified chain of command, and a shift in policing from monitoring to more active engagement in restructuring the complete public security system. It also contains numerous recommendations concerning the United Nations' ability to conceive, plan, mount and logistically support complex peace operations.

At NATO, beginning as early as 1996, a number of lessons-learned exercises have been undertaken. Overseeing implementation of the Dayton Agreement in Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosnia) produced a number of fundamental political and military lessons that were, in the main, eventually applied in Kosovo almost four years later. There is a great deal of common ground between the fundamental lessons learned by NATO and the key thrusts of the Brahimi report, which merit further attention.

Tight linkage between mandate, mission and capabilities: In planning to oversee implementation of the Dayton Agreement, NATO benefited from the experience of the United Nations in Bosnia in the early 1990s, in particular the problems resulting from frequent changes in mandate, the lack of clear direction to UN military commanders, and the general lack of support by member states to the mandates that they had themselves agreed at UN headquarters in New York. Accordingly, NATO insisted on a tight linkage between the mandate set out in annex 1A, the military annex of the Dayton Agreement, the mission given by the North Atlantic Council to the Alliance military authorities and the capabilities of the Alliance and the commitment of specific forces and other resources to IFOR. Specifically, through key Allies, annex 1A was drafted to ensure that NATO had the capability to do what was being asked of an implementing military force. This included what is now known as a "silver bullet" clause, namely that the IFOR commander had the necessary and ultimate authority over the military forces of the parties to the conflict. The mission was crafted by the Alliance's political authorities, based on sound and timely advice from NATO military authorities. The result was a clear focus on annex 1A to avoid problems encountered by previous UN forces and ensure that the force would not be pulled in many directions by civilian agencies all seeking support on the ground: no "mission creep". Finally, Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe organised a series of force-planning conferences to ensure that the requisite capabilities were in place.

Brahimi also made it clear that the United Nations' mistakes of the 1990s with respect to changing mandates, missions and poorly resourced operations should not be repeated. Specifically, the report calls for "clear, credible and achievable mandates" and recommends that before the Security Council agrees to implement a cease-fire or peace accord, the agreement needs to meet certain threshold conditions such as consistency with international human rights standards and feasibility of specified tasks and timelines. The report also proposes that the Security Council leave any resolution in draft form until member states firmly commit troops and other critical mission-support elements, including peace-building resources. This makes the linkage between mandate and resources. The report goes on to propose fully engaging the UN secretariat by ensuring that the experts in the secretariat tell the Security Council what it needs to know, not what it wants to hear, and to engage troop-contributors in the dialogue, with a view to getting the force commander's mission right.

The need for unity of effort: Another fundamental lesson learned by NATO was the fact that the key to any exit strategy, a preoccupation of some in the early days of the Bosnian peace process, was the success of other key components of the Dayton Agreement. Following successful implementation of the military aspects of the peace accord, it was clear that maintaining a secure environment for civil implementation meant close cooperation with a wide range of other participants in the peace process, including the Office of the High Representative, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the United Nations. Accordingly, concerns over "mission creep" were gradually replaced by recognition that support to civil implementation was essential. The realisation of the need for such cooperation calls for a significantly greater understanding between the various military, civil, humanitarian and development organisations, understanding of each others' cultures, policies, procedures, decision-making processes, resource bases, capabilities, strengths and limitations.

The Brahimi report also acknowledges the need for partnerships based on a better understanding of the various actors. While it focuses on the internal UN system and the need for "integrated missions" with "integrated headquarters", it addresses the need for cooperation, hence fundamental understanding, between those responsible for political analysis, military operations, civilian police, electoral assistance, human rights, development, humanitarian assistance, refugees and displaced persons, public information, logistics, finance and recruitment.

Harmonising objectives, concepts and plans: In October 1995, NATO attempted to understand the objectives, broad concepts and outline plans of other potential contributing organisations in regards to the then-emerging Dayton Agreement, through staff-level visits. Virtually no organisation was prepared for a timely deployment to Bosnia and, for most, the requirement was well beyond any previously encountered effort. Moreover, some, such as the United Nations itself, were not parties to the Dayton negotiations and therefore had no warning time. As a result, there was no exchange of concepts or outline plans and little real appreciation of objectives beyond the vagaries of the latter annexes of the Dayton Agreement.

Brahimi takes the concept of an integrated mission headquarters and proposes that members be seconded to such headquarters from all parts of the UN system. As one follow-up to this, the United Nations' Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) is currently developing a three-phase training programme for these headquarters, including mission-specific preparations.

The need for a robust capability: Much of what the NATO-led force is now doing in Bosnia could be considered classic peacekeeping, but with a robust force that is capable of dealing with emergencies. IFOR and its successor SFOR have provided humanitarian assistance and have, on occasion, had to use force. SFOR has supported implementation of a wide range of civil aspects of the peace agreement and is now examining ways to ensure durable, longer-term stability. In Kosovo, the Alliance was involved first in conflict prevention in cooperation with the OSCE, later in humanitarian assistance and then in imposing a peace settlement, peace enforcement and providing support to civil implementation. The principal lesson for Alliance planners is the need for a strong and flexible force, with robust rules of engagement, capable of dealing with a variety of contingencies and emergencies. NATO's Combined Joint Task Force (CJTF) concept has also been developed to strengthen the Alliance's ability to respond to future emergencies.

The Brahimi report also draws conclusions on the need for a robust force posture and a sound peace-building strategy. The report implies that the United Nations must now be willing to take sides. When one party to a peace agreement is clearly and incontrovertibly violating its terms, continued equal treatment of all parties risks undermining a mission's credibility and may amount to complicity with evil. Missions must, therefore, have the authority to use force to confront violence and the ability and determination to defeat offending parties. This implies larger, better-equipped and more costly forces, able to pose a deterrent threat, in contrast to the symbolic and non-threatening presence that has characterised traditional peacekeeping. The recent UN reports on Rwanda and Srebrenica complement and support this conclusion. With respect to military forces, the UN Standby High Readiness Brigade, in some respects the United Nations' equivalent in readiness terms of NATO's CJTF, has already been tested in the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Integrating troop-contributors appropriately: NATO has worked hard since IFOR's deployment in Bosnia to find ways of progressively including troop-contributing Partners, both in the planning and the decision-making processes. In the early days, a balance had to be struck for security reasons between, on the one hand, consultations with Partners and, on the other, proper acknowledgement of the commitment of non-NATO troop-contributors. NATO also established a means of evaluating non-NATO offers of forces, to ensure an adequate degree of preparedness to meet the challenges of the Balkans.

The Brahimi report emphasises the need for a greater place in planning and decision-making for troop-contributors. It, too, addresses the force-quality issue by suggesting, as a standard practice, the creation and deployment of UN assessment teams for both the training and the equipment of national contingents.

Ensuring public security in peacekeeping operations: Public security remains a key challenge for the international community in both Bosnia and Kosovo. However, the situations are clearly different, since law and order is the responsibility of local police in Bosnia and of the United Nations in Kosovo. In Bosnia, the Alliance learned that, due to the inadequacies of local police, the NATO-led force needed a capability to react to breakdowns in law and order, since soldiers are not adequately trained to do police tasks. Accordingly, NATO created a multinational specialised unit of carabinieri, gendarmes and other special police, operating under military command. In Kosovo, recognising the pressing need for the military to undertake law-and-order responsibilities before UN police had properly arrived, most contingents deployed with additional military or special police capability and/or troops trained for the task.

The Brahimi report also concludes that this issue is critical, citing a need for national pools of civilian police officers to be available for deployment on UN missions. It urges regional training arrangements and encourages the creation of a standby pool of some 100 police to reinforce UN planning staffs at the time of an emerging crisis.

New crisis-management procedures and structures: Early in the planning process for IFOR, NATO realised that its existing crisis-management procedures could not be applied in their totality to the requirements of the Bosnian peacekeeping situation. While fundamental aspects such as the development of military advice and political decisionmaking remained valid, the day-to-day support for the Secretary General and the North Atlantic Council was vested in a small multi-functional group of experts, the Bosnia Task Force, later renamed the Balkans Task Force. The group included political, military, humanitarian, legal, media and other experts as required. A special NATO political- military committee was also established to provide national input and consideration of the issues.

One of the main thrusts of the Brahimi report is its conclusion that significant reorganisation of the UN system is needed, especially at its New York headquarters. Structural, procedural and resource issues are addressed, as is the matter of financial authority and accountability. In addition to proposals on mandates and the Security Council, the report proposes that peace-building be handled by the Political Affairs Department; an information and strategic analysis entity be created; mission leadership and an integrated staff be created early in the planning process; certain funding authority be given to those planning and implementing a mission; the military standby arrangements concept be extended to civilian police, judges, lawyers, human rights experts and other specialists; and staff levels be increased, especially in DPKO.

The importance of training, education and preparedness: Both NATO and the United Nations fully recognise the need for well-trained, informed and properly equipped civilian and military organisations and individual staff in the demanding security and humanitarian environments of the Balkans and similar complex missions. NATO-led military forces spent a great deal of time preparing for their deployment into both Balkan theatres and, as noted previously, in assessing additional contributions offered by non-NATO countries. The emphasis on peacekeeping in the Alliance's Partnership for Peace programme paid early dividends as many Partners stepped forward and contributed forces. Alliance concepts, doctrine and procedures now take full account of the experience aquired in the Balkans, particularly concerning cooperating and coordinating with civilian organisations in the peace process.

Brahimi calls both for national efforts at better preparing groups, individual staff or specialists and for collective efforts under UN guidance. The report specifically focuses on preparations of an integrated mission headquarters, civilian police and other civilian specialists, and strongly recommends an evaluation mechanism.

For its part, NATO is already applying these lessons and capturing them in policy and doctrine in a number of ways: through the many years of its military forces training and operating together; by a focus on peacekeeping in the Partnership for Peace; in the Alliance's special programmes of cooperation with Russia and Ukraine and in its Mediterranean Dialogue process; and in NATO's developing relations with the various militaries in the Balkan region. The Alliance is addressing fundamental international cooperation through enhanced communication with the European Union, OSCE and UNHCR. It also has a permanent liaison officer at UN headquarters in New York and has occasionally deployed liaison officers to the UHHCR in Geneva. NATO also maintains close relations with the heads of missions of international organisations in Bosnia and Kosovo, and NATO military doctrine now fully recognises the civilian dimensions of complex peacekeeping operations.

The Brahimi report has already served to draw official and public attention to the peacekeeping shortcomings of the 1990s in a constructive and effective manner. It addresses a range of practical issues such as decision-making, rapid deployment, planning and support. Additional issues are addressed concerning civilian implementation, which attempt to minimise the current ad hoc nature of some peacekeeping missions. Now it remains for member states to work together with the relevant UN off icials to continue to enhance UN peacekeeping capabilities.

If one last conclusion can be extrapolated from both NATO and UN experiences, it is that the concept of robust peacekeeping needs to be extended to the civilian sector. It is clear from the experience in Bosnia and Kosovo, that the international community needs to establish early authority and credibility. This cannot be done by military forces alone. The principal international organisations need to move in far more quickly, with far greater efficiency and effectiveness, using all of the authority available within their respective mandates. Once this group of organisations is able to demonstrate a clearer sense of purpose and a greater unity of effort to local officials and public, it may be easier to achieve cooperation and support and, ultimately, a successful mission.

  1. David Lightburn is an analyst at the Pearson Peacekeeping Center in Nova Scotia, Canada.While at NATO between 1992 and 2000, he helped to develop the Alliance's involvement in peacekeeping.