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Is NATO Suffering from Mission Creep?

The Libyan intervention has severely tested NATO’s operational capacity and the alliance itself. NATO’s continued involvement in Afghanistan and its subtle involvement in a number of theaters around the globe does beg the question of whether NATO has succumbed to mission creep.

The fact that NATO has field operations throughout Africa, the Mediterranean, the Middle East and the Balkans, implies an international organization that literally defines its role in the world as international. NATO’s strength is that its makeup is homogeneous and its members more or less pursue the same grand strategies and goals.

This is not to suggest that its members fall in line behind and support, without reservation, any potential operation. Germany has recently found itself on the defensive. While offering support for the Libyan rebels only after they eventually routed pro-Qaddafi elements in Tripoli, it has since attempted to shore up any rifts with France and Britain.

Guido Westerwelle (FDP), Germany’s Foreign Minister recently suggested, “This decision was correct,” he emphasized in his country’s decision not to lend support to the no-fly zone, “Because we sought political solutions.” Ultimately, Germany’s decision to oppose the mission could be to the benefit of Great Britain, France, Italy, the United States, Turkey and perhaps China who may win lucrative oil and rebuilding contracts from the new Libyan government.

Besides the aforementioned Libyan involvement, which to some smacks of regime change, by directly supporting the rebels contrary to the UN mandate, NATO is engaged in multiple operations outside of Europe.

Its involvement in Afghanistan is perhaps the most obvious. NATO also has field operations in Iraq, the Mediterranean and is engaged in anti-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa. NATO’s Operation Active Endeavour is focused on the Mediterranean in the context of deterring and eliminating the threat of terrorism to Europe and elsewhere. “NATO operations are not limited only to zones of conflict.

In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, NATO immediately began to take measures to expand the options available to counter the threat of international terrorism. With the launching of the maritime surveillance operation Active Endeavour in October 2001, NATO added a new dimension to the global fight against terrorism,” according to NATO.

NATO is leading the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan which is comprised of 130,000 troops from 48 countries. Established by UN Resolution 1386, the goals of NATO’s Afghan mission are daunting and some question its stated goal of success given the often-deteriorating security environment on the ground and widely discussed corruption within the Karzai government. Moreover, whether the mission can be concluded in a finite period of time remains to be seen. NATO’s current mission on the ground is to provide an environment where the Kabul central government can be extended beyond Karzai’s presidential compound to outlying provinces.

Where NATO has witnessed some moderate success has been in building a more robust and highly trained Afghan National Army (ANA). Essentially starting from scratch, the Afghan army has grown to approximately 120,000 soldiers. NATO’s ability to withdraw from Afghanistan hinges on insuring that the Afghan National Police and Afghan National Army can function wholly independent of NATO’s guidance and support. The reliability and allegiances of many within the Afghan National Army has some questioning whether NATO has painted too rosy a picture of its perceived success.

Because the Afghan National Police are widely considered even more corrupt than the Afghan National Army, NATO has pinned its hopes on the ANA. In 2010, using a Capability Milestone (CM) rating system to measure the capabilities of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) found that major hurdles and obstacles exist in the building of a reliable Afghan National Army and Police. In a widely disseminated report, these obstacles were discussed in detail. In particular, SIGAR found, “serious challenges affect U.S. and Coalition assessment efforts, including security conditions, mentor shortages, and inadequate training. Further, systemic ANSF deficiencies have undermined efforts to develop unit capabilities. These include logistics problems, personnel attrition, inadequate personnel authorizations, infrastructure deficiencies, corruption, drug abuse, and illiteracy.”

“In addition to its corroding effect on public confidence in ANSF and thereby the Afghan government, corruption was cited by army and police mentors and partners as a key factor undermining developmental progress and morale at the unit level… Mentors and partners we interviewed and assessment reports we reviewed observed that ANSF corruption has affected the leadership of many units, disrupted supply chain operations, and diminished willingness to cooperate with mentoring/partnering efforts in some cases,” the report continued.

If NATO has any hopes of fielding a reliable and independent ANSF, corruption and a whole slate of other obstacles will have to be overcome in the next few years. NATO’s mission in the Balkans is one of the few theaters suited to the original mission of NATO. Around 10,000 NATO troops take part in KFOR. While situations on the ground have dramatically improved from the late 1990s, long simmering ethnic tensions could very well erupt once again. The trials of Goran Hadzic and Ratko Mladic at The Hague have reminded many that work remains to be done in bringing to justice those responsible for the ethnic violence in the region. Part of an effort at reconciling the various factions in the region is the multiethnic Kosovo Security Force which NATO is tasked with creating.

Much like in Afghanistan, NATO’s involvement in Iraq is interesting for the fact that it is a country many miles outside of Brussels. Despite the fact that many of its members opposed the U.S. led war in 2003, NATO does field an operation there. The NATO Training Mission in Iraq (NTM-1) is an effort by NATO member states to train an effective Iraqi security force. Primarily through donations, a small number of European countries are training Iraqis inside and outside of Iraq to assist it in fielding a competent security force. However, political squabbling and disagreements among the various Iraqi political actors could derail the international effort to insure that Iraq can maintain a certain level of stability. Aside from North Africa, NATO does actively patrol off the Horn of Africa and it supports the African Union in Somalia, assisting the AU in its AMISOM mission.

Broadly speaking, these missions can be interpreted to signify an international organization that wants to be everything to everyone. This is not to suggest that NATO risks an ultimate failure from the weight of its various commitments. Importantly, NATO still serves a very useful role as a multimember security organization. The Libyan mission clearly illustrates that NATO chose sides, i.e. shelling and bombing pro-Qaddafi forces. Clearly, the Franco-Anglo-American alliance invested too much political and military capital to just stand back and watch Qaddafi ultimately prevail.

NATO’s involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, clearly indicates that the institutional makeup of NATO insures that it is an all or nothing organization. If the United States needs assistance in Afghanistan, then NATO is there to help. If the French and British prod the Obama administration to act in Libya then the hands of the U.S. are tied and it ultimately assists.

Once Libya, the Horn of Africa and the Balkans are sorted out, NATO will have to decide where its priorities lie. Is NATO attempting to fill the void left by docile UN Peacekeepers who cannot engage targets in warzones unless fired upon? Is NATO transforming itself into an international police force? Finally, is NATO’s new raison d’etre to be the last arbiter of human rights around the globe? Is NATO the moral equivalent of a high school hall monitor?

These issues will have to be sorted out. Where NATO could ultimately fail in its mission if it is unable to fix the free rider problem left by certain states that do not contribute as much as they should. The United States, and the British, to a point, have carried the workload of NATO for most of its existence. This unbalanced commitment has riled the sensitivities of certain high-ranking American officials in the past.

Before retiring, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates addressed his concerns to the NATO Council in Brussels in June of this year. Gates warned about the reality of certain member-states not contributing their fair share to NATO, for example, in Afghanistan. “The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress — and in the American body politic writ large — to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.”

When considering the role that NATO plays in the world it is important to consider that it does so because of the weaknesses of regional institutions like the African Union and the Arab League. If those crying foul at NATO’s involvement throughout Africa wish to handle more of their own affairs, then the capable member-states of the Arab League and African Union need to bolster their own institutions’ capabilities.