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Winston Churchill once said that "There is at least one thing worse than fighting with allies – and that is fighting without them." His situation, Britain alone facing the Axis powers after the summer of 1940, was an extreme one, but the quote illustrates the paradoxes that come with waging war while in an alliance. As 2014 seems to be the year that we look back and ponder what the Afghanistan war means for the future, the question becomes: what of NATO?

For everyone who participated, the experience was profoundly frustrating. As always, there was an uneven sharing of the burden. Canada used to be criticized for not spending enough of its gross domestic product on its military compared to many other countries. In Afghanistan, the burden-sharing problem was one of of blood, and, this time, Canada, along with several other countries, bore a disproportionate share of the burden. So, it is not surprising that there are many in Canada and in the other burden bearers (Denmark, Great Britain, Netherlands, U.S.) who are reluctant to do anything like this again. On the other hand, those that got the most criticism for not doing enough (Germany, Italy, Spain, etc.) feel as if they sacrificed a lot, losing significant numbers of soldiers but received no credit for it abroad and much criticism at home.

So, can we expect things to change the next time? To be clear, there will be a next time. Just as Kosovo created similarly sour sentiments about future NATO operations, Afghanistan may create a short period of reluctance followed by more NATO efforts. The reality is simple – most countries cannot fight alone and the one that can, the United States, has learned in Iraq that going alone is quite difficult. Moreover, the Iraq example serves another lesson – that coalitions of the willing have many of the same problems as NATO and other formal alliances but with fewer benefits. Just as there were contingents deployed in Afghanistan under the NATO banner that refused to do certain things, the U.S. found that members of the coalition of the willing in Iraq also had limitations on what they were allowed to do.

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Given the challenges of Afghanistan, can we expect NATO to reform and eliminate the caveats and other restrictions that get in the way of military co-operation and more even burden-sharing? No. NATO's institutions and those of its members are rather stubborn and are unlikely to change now or anytime in the future. Specifically, NATO's Article V, which is the heart of the alliance – "an attack upon one is considered an attack upon all" – includes an opt-out clause – each country is to respond as each deems necessary. That clause will remain precisely because NATO decisions require consensus: all must agree not to veto a decision. And one can only get consensus if countries have the ability to opt out of things that they are unwilling to do.

Which leads us to the second set of institutions – the ones that vary across the democratic members of the alliance. There is a basic difference between coalition governments and everyone else. In a coalition government, the various parties in cabinet must negotiate to agree to participate in overseas deployments. In these negotiations, the less enthusiastic parties will make demands of the more enthusiastic parties, and these conditions become restrictions upon the mission. Germany was not alone in this process, as coalition politics shaped the performance of many countries in Afghanistan and later over Libya. For other kinds of democracies, these decisions about whether to deploy and whether to impose conditions on the troops are largely in the hands of the presidents and prime ministers who have more latitude. These individuals may choose to restrict what their troops can do, as president Chirac chose, or they can choose to grant significant discretion, as president Sarkozy decided.

The basic reality is this: democracies do not give up control of their troops when they send them abroad to participate in multilateral military operations. Doing so would be a huge breach in civilian control of the military, a fundamental component of modern democracy. Therefore, we cannot expect countries to change how they manage their militaries, even if such management led to underperformance in Afghanistan.

The reality is that any future military efforts will face the same kinds of challenges as NATO faced in Afghanistan. But NATO is not going away, as the alternatives have proven to be even worse. Coalitions of the willing have less legitimacy and much less of the history of common doctrine, interoperability and exercises that NATO has. To paraphrase Churchill, NATO is the worst form of multilateral military co-operation except for all of the others.

Stephen Saideman is Paterson Chair in International Affairs, CDFAI fellow and co-author of NATO in Afghanistan: Fighting Together, Fighting Alone

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