17 May 2012
NATO’s hitherto most significant out-of-area operation – over 10 years in Afghanistan – is winding down with little grounds for optimism. Whether the outcome of the intervention validates its cost has been debated from different angles endlessly in global capitals and on the ground at various points in time. In the more recent operation in Libya, the Alliance has managed to preclude this type of soul-searching by keeping the military engagement limited in duration and tightly focused on the UN Security Council mandate to protect civilians. Many observers have taken this opportunity to speak of a new, leaner model for NATO’s conduct in out-of-area operations.
As NATO member countries convene in Chicago in May, political will to intervene in crises abroad is low, and the capabilities for doing so are thinly stretched. Nevertheless, leaders should take a moment to reflect on what past experience reveals about the complex interplay of interests, motivations, and expectations in order to reassess the scope for future out-of-area operations under the NATO banner. At the very least, this should inspire greater caution regarding so-called models or templates, which provide a false sense of predictability.
A chief lesson to guide this debate is that interventions take place within a complex web of stakeholders with multiple agendas. First, the experience of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan has illustrated the diversity of motivations behind NATO member countries’ participation. The United States – itself the reason for every other ally to contribute troops in ISAF – and a few others, like the British, had a clear objective in defeating the Taliban and denying Al Qaeda safe havens in Afghanistan. Many other coalition members in practice had as their true, yet “hidden”, priority the limitation of their engagement (in other words, blood and treasure). This created diverging policies and choices at all levels of the mission.
Second, the local population’s expectations are generally believed to converge in the desire for basic and a predictable level of security to invest in jobs and livelihoods. However, Afghanistan has also shown that local stakeholders’ agendas and quest for power could become a strategic liability. For years after the fall of the Taliban regime, neither the new central government nor ISAF could demonstrate reliable improvement in vast stretches of the country. Who would ultimately deliver security, justice, and development became an increasingly secondary concern for many locals as the mission dragged on. In a twist ISAF planning did not anticipate, contrary to Afghanistan, part of the success of the U.S. military’s surge in Iraq rested on the perception that the only viable path towards security and order seemed to be cooperation with the Iraqi central government and the coalition forces.
Third, regional actors add another layer of potentially competing interests. While a stable neighbour is generally preferable in terms of commercial and security interests, manageable degrees of disorder may benefit certain regional actors. Moreover, the coalition’s objectives with regard to the future political and strategic orientation of Afghanistan may diverge with regional stakeholders’ preferences. When a regional actor has a decisive influence on the ultimate outcome – as Pakistan has had in Afghanistan for decades – this aspect should weigh in all the more powerfully on strategic considerations.
Naturally, the likelihood of a successful completion of the mission increases with the greater the convergence among perceptions and interests within this kaleidoscope of stakeholders. Gathering political will and resources at the right time to project the right combination of hard and soft power in an intervention is crucial – as the experience of Afghanistan has shown. Chances for success for the large scale nation-building effort implemented only after 2009 were considerably lower than if they had begun in 2002. Divergent agendas within the coalition, shifting preferences on the ground, and a delicate web of regional dynamics work against such strategic timing. NATO’s “model intervention” in Libya should not be taken as a reason to believe that the alliance can counter weigh these challenges with a fixed template based on the application of hard power alone. The patterns of each and every crisis in which NATO military intervention is contemplated are unique – and no model can eliminate the complexity of complicated, and very human, competing factors.
Andrea Barbara Baumann is Visiting Research Associate and Gergely Varga is a Visiting Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at SAIS, John Hopkins University. Both are members of the Atlantic Council’s Young Atlanticist Working Group.
This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier's May/June edition.