As NATO militaries hand over their responsibilities to Afghanistan’s fledgling security forces and head for home, let the evaluation of the alliance’s performance begin – no matter how disappointing the conclusions might be.
Immediately after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization invoked Article 5 of its charter, which obliges member countries to come to the aid of those under attack. This was the first time in NATO history that Article 5 was in the spotlight, and, unfortunately, the holes in its interpretation were large enough to drive a truck through. None of the framers of Article 5 indicated how much military assistance each member country was expected to contribute. In other words, NATO was really a closet multiple-choice alliance where each member country could pick and choose not only how much it would contribute, but how much it would actually do after arriving in theatre.
As it approached the 50th anniversary of its 1949 creation, NATO found itself with no obvious military role. The collapse of the Soviet Union had eliminated its sole enemy and primary reason for existence. The hype and outright propaganda surrounding the deteriorating situation in Kosovo in early 1999 provided the alliance with a questionable mission, at best. Serbia had been heavy-handed with Kosovo’s Albanian majority for years, but deadly force was not employed. Then, the Kosovo Liberation Army began ambushing and killing Serbian security forces throughout Kosovo. The Serbs reacted and the fighting intensified.
Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic’s reputation in most NATO countries was already at rock-bottom after the war in Bosnia, and the alliance had now found a role. Absent a United Nations resolution, it bombed a sovereign country – not just Serbian military targets, but civilian infrastructure.
Most alliance member countries participated in the bombing campaign, even if some disagreed with the mission. What was not realized at the time was how the degree of risk, despite being virtually non-existent to alliance forces in an air campaign, would play a role in determining which countries would participate and what they would be prepared to undertake – in Kosovo, and then in future NATO missions.
The aversion to risk raised its head again as the Afghan mission unfolded. The U.S. mission, Operation Enduring Freedom, laid the ground for the subsequent NATO mission. In late 2005, when Kandahar looked like it would fall to the Taliban, NATO decided that Dutch, British and Canadian combat units would move south to Kandahar under the alliance’s command. The Canadians moved south on schedule and defeated formed Taliban units. The others were delayed for months as their governments debated. NATO’s command of the operation was also postponed and the Canadians operated under U.S. operational control as part of Enduring Freedom.
It had become obvious that while safe air campaigns were one thing, many countries were not prepared to contribute forces for high-risk ground combat. Meanwhile, a number of countries who sent troops to the Afghan theatre insisted on caveats that might have been humorous if the consequences hadn’t been so serious: “We won’t patrol at night” and “We will only shoot if shot at first” and “We won’t go outside the wire,” for example.
The 2011 air campaign in Libya reinforced the theory that risk is the key deciding factor in which countries will show up when NATO calls. Bombing Moammar Gadhafi’s forces was extremely low risk, and there was no shortage of alliance volunteers.
Despite the steady erosion of NATO combat capabilities since the end of the Cold War, the alliance continued to grow by moving east and welcoming former Soviet satellite countries, such as Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania. Pushing right up to the Russian border and bestowing membership on the likes of Estonia and Latvia was extremely unwise, because the alliance no longer has the capability to rush to the rescue with military force in the event a member is threatened. All the West’s rhetoric about Ukraine is meaningless, because Russia knows NATO is incapable of taking on any high-risk intervention – anywhere.
In the aftermath of NATO’s failures in Afghanistan, there is the possibility of a three-tier alliance emerging once the post-mission evaluation is completed:
Tier 1: Those countries who will.
Tier 2: Those countries who won’t.
Tier 3: Those countries who can’t.
Retired major-general Lewis MacKenzie was the first commander of UN peacekeeping forces in Sarajevo.
Editor's Note: This article has been corrected to indicate that NATO itself invoked Article 5 of its charter after the attacks of September 11, 2001, and not the United States.