The alliance could crumble if the U.S. becomes the COIN expert
Analysts on both sides of the Atlantic agree that the NATO mission in Afghanistan is a litmus test on the credibility of the trans-Atlantic alliance. If the 26 nations that comprise NATO can’t sustain a coalition against the Taliban, which helped orchestrate the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks against the U.S. homeland that prompted NATO’s his¬toric invocation of its mutual defense clause, then friend and foe alike have good reason to doubt the durability of the alliance.
However, if Afghanistan risks becoming the alliance’s coffin, the newfound American interest in developing its own coun¬terinsurgency (COIN) force could be the nail that seals NATO’s fate. That’s because such a capabili¬ty could erode Europe’s comparative advan¬tage in this sphere, causing American policymakers to question whether the ben¬efits of cooperation really outweigh the added bureaucratic complexity of working with the Europeans. But the U.S. interest in such a capability also provides an opportu¬nity for NATO to positively re-evaluate Europe’s contribution to military opera¬tions — but only if the United States and Europe make it so.
For most practical purposes, a rough divi¬sion of labor has existed within NATO throughout its existence. Put simplistically, the U.S. supplies most of the high technology and Europe sup¬plies most of the manpower. During the Cold War, this meant that European countries supplied most of the ground troops to repel a Soviet invasion and the U.S. supplied high-tech weaponry such as strategic air support, advanced munitions and nuclear weapons. This division of labor played to compar¬ative advantages on both sides of the Atlantic to achieve a common goal: defending Europe.
Since the Cold War, the division of labor has grown even sharper: the U.S. performs high-intensity warfare with its pre¬cision armaments and Europe polices the aftermath with its manpower-intensive peacekeeping and stabilization capabili¬ty. Only now, unlike the Cold War division of labor through which allies brought their comparative advantages to bear on the common mission of defending Europe, today’s division of labor, rightly or wrongly, is often viewed as involving distinct missions: war fighting and peacekeeping.
The comparative advantages behind this division of labor also existed throughout the Cold War, but they’ve grown more pronounced in recent decades. After the Vietnam War, the U.S. shifted from a large conscript force to a smaller, all-volunteer force. This decision, driven in part by a feeling that the U.S. would never again engage in a COIN-like operation such as Vietnam, enabled the military to recruit and retain a smarter, highly motivated cohort of professional soldiers.
But this shift was also expensive. The military now had to compete for top talent on the open market. According to historian Bernard Rostker, leaders worried that escalating personnel costs would push hardware procurement out of the defense budget. The U.S. sought a technological solution to this tension. Planners believed that high-tech weaponry in the hands of better-trained personnel would serve as a force multiplier for the smaller force the United States would now maintain on active duty. In other words, better firepower and a highly trained, more professional force could more than make up for less manpower.
The end of the Cold War amplified this trend. In 1991, a U.S.-led coalition routed Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait in the first Persian Gulf War. It took just three days after the ground campaign began for coalition forces to liberate Kuwait. Analysts widely expected many thousands of coalition casualties; there were 378. Clearly, analysts had overestimated Iraq’s military prowess. But they also underestimated America’s military might and its enormous technological edge over Saddam’s forces.
But the swift victory led to a disturbing discovery: Saddam had an advanced nuclear weapons research program that he had managed to hide from the world until U.N. weapons inspectors uncovered it in 1991. The discovery raised the trou¬bling question of whether the U.S. and its coalition partners still would have gone to war if Saddam had had deployable nuclear weapons.
Indeed, the main lesson of the Persian Gulf War for U.S. adversaries, according to a quip usually attributed to former Indian Army Chief of Staff Gen. Krishnaswamy Sundarji, is that a country should not take on the U.S. unless it has nuclear weapons or some other asymmetric military capability. The fact that Saddam was able to conceal such an advanced pro¬gram for as long as he did raised the equally troubling ques¬tion of whether other conventionally weak adversaries might be able to surprise the United States with a nuclear weapons capability. This possibility quickly became a major preoccupa¬tion for U.S. military planners.
NEW WEAPONS, NEW THREATS
The Persian Gulf War experience, together with rapid advances in precision weaponry and communications technology, suggested that a major change in the way the mil¬itary used high technology was at hand in the early 1990s. Phrases such as the “revolution in military affairs,” and later, “military transformation,” entered the military lexicon to describe the unprecedented transformation of computer technology and precision weaponry in military use. But the 1990s also saw the U.S. take on a variety of peacekeeping and stabilization operations — “nation-building,” in 1990s parl¬ance — in Africa, Southeast Asia, the Balkans and the Caribbean. Many military leaders and politicians derided these missions as distractions from what they regarded as the U.S. military’s core mission of fighting and winning wars.
In Europe, meanwhile, the end of the Cold War prompted significant defense budget cuts, just as it did in the U.S. But the United States was able to cope with the downturn by spending it far more effectively, in significant part because of investments in research and development, a more mod¬ern force structure, and the comparatively favorable config¬uration of the U.S. defense market. One result of this was a major widening of the already-existing interoperability gap between U.S. and European forces.
But the real culprit was a significant divergence in threat perception. Whereas the bulk of American military planning in the 1990s focused primarily on high-intensity combat against one or more regional adversaries, the trans-Atlantic partners were preoccupied with consolidating the political transformations underway in both Western Europe and the former Soviet bloc. In the early 1990s, the dozen countries that comprised what was then called the European Community began to negotiate a far more ambitious politi¬cal and monetary union. They also began to tentatively explore an international diplomatic and security identity for their union, distinct from NATO. This process led to the cre¬ation of the European Union in 1992, which paved the way for an unprecedented decade of European economic and political integration.
However, the disintegration of Yugoslavia demonstrated that the political vacuum created by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact could produce a new era of violence and instability in Europe. This helped fuel inter¬est among European Union countries in developing a peace¬keeping and stabilization capability within the EU that would enable Europe to act when NATO, i.e. the U.S., choos¬es not to act.
The United States, for its part, had always been lukewarm, at best, on the prospect of its NATO allies developing a sepa¬rate transnational military capability. The worry was that it would undercut NATO by diverting already scarce European defense resources — financial and political — away from NATO. Interoperability of U.S. and NATO forces, already imperiled, might suffer further as a result.
Ultimately, though, America’s distaste for peacekeeping overcame this hesitancy. By the late 1990s, the U.S. had con¬ditionally endorsed the European effort, provided it not run afoul of what then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in 1998 called the three D’s: no duplicating NATO assets, no discriminating against non-EU NATO members, and no measures to decouple the U.S. from Europe. EU countries announced their intent to form a European Rapid Reaction Force (RRF) in 1999 under the European Defense and Security Policy, with the objective of being able to rapidly deploy up to 60,000 troops to an out-of-area location to engage in peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance.
Those developments, in the words of Lt. Col. Stephen J. Coonen, an Army expert on European military affairs, produced “a de facto, albeit unclear, division of labor within the alliance and between NATO and the EU, wherein the United States plays a leading role during high-intensity phases of operations and European forces become more prominent in the post-conflict phase.” Following the 9/11 attacks, NATO invoked Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, the mutual defense clause, for the first time. Many European countries offered their assistance for the invasion of Afghanistan, but the United States turned down all but the British offer because the Europeans lacked precision strike capabilities. In essence, the United States judged that active allied European participation in com¬bat missions would have complicated, rather than facilitated, the achieve¬ment of U.S. objectives.
However, Washington knew that once it ousted the Taliban, a peace¬keeping force would be required to maintain order until a new Afghan government could be elected. Opponents of “nation-building” — and there were many — concluded that the U.S. should not be the one to perform this mission.
Fast forward to 2007, and the mood in Washington has shifted decisively. Leaders now recognize that the line between combat and stabilization operations, as the experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq show, is not always clear, and that failing to take the post-conflict phase seriously is a recipe for disaster. Accordingly, a new edition of the Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual was issued. And the Bush administration, in its fiscal 2008 defense budget pro¬posal, even proposed adding 92,000 troops to the active-duty force, based in part on the recognition that COIN operations require a larger number of specialized soldiers. The goal of reme¬dying America’s COIN capabilities gap enjoys broad support, at least in prin¬ciple, from leading Democratic and Republican politicians, the Pentagon, and the expert community.
This development portends two possible effects on NATO. One is that it heaps further doubt on Europe’s abili¬ty to meaningfully contribute to mili¬tary operations. After all, if the U.S. is willing and able to conduct peace¬keeping and stabilization operations on its own, why bring in NATO — and its bureaucracy — for anything more than a window-dressing role?
Paradoxically, though, an American re-evaluation of the importance of sta¬bilization operations can — and, indeed, should — bring NATO closer together. The U.S. will have to invest a lot of money to build a robust COIN capability. For instance, adding 92,000 troops to the active force would be expensive. Since 9/11, Congress has treated the U.S. defense budget — now topping $600 billion — as sacrosanct, but few analysts think these heady days for defense spending will last for¬ever. The Pentagon may ultimately be forced to choose between more troops and any number of high-ticket weapons programs designed for Cold War-era threats, and one might sus¬pect that existing weapons programs will prevail over hypothetical additions of manpower.
For the foreseeable future, the U.S. needs credible partners in Afghanistan and, if the United States or one of its allies is attacked again, potentially elsewhere. For the first time in decades, the U.S. and Europe have a shared procurement priority that enjoys significant political support. This provides a rare opportu¬nity for the kind of deep strategic planning that has so often eluded NATO since the end of the Cold War. The alliance would be wise to seize this opportunity.
Andrew Grotto is a senior national security analyst at the Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, D.C.