A group of former senior NATO military officials have issued a report warning that the military alliance is in trouble and in need of a massive overhaul if it is to retain its usefulness and relevance. The authors of the report -- Gen. John Shalikashvili, former chairman of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff and a former NATO commander; Adm. Jacques Lanxade, former chief of the Defense Staff of France, Gen. Klaus Naumann, former chief of the Defense Staff of Germany; Field Marshal Peter Inge, former chief of the Defense Staff of Britain; and Gen. Henk van den Breemen, former chief of the Defense Staff of the Netherlands -- assert that NATO is paralyzed by several key problems, including "cumbersome decision-making rules, inequitable financing arrangements and an inability to sustain long-term missions."
This is not the first warning of the problems facing NATO. Last month, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates upset many key US allies and NATO members when he publicly stated that many of the military problems in Afghanistan were due to the inability of member forces to fight insurgency-style warfare. Eastern Afghanistan, which shares a border with Pakistan and is primarily patrolled by US forces has become more secure lately, while Taliban activity and violence levels have been rising in the southern regions, controlled by a force largely made up of British, Canadian and Dutch forces. More troops and better equipment have been sought to increase the military presence in Afghanistan, but NATO has had massive difficulties in meeting the demand.
In late 2006, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer had to literally beg NATO members to provide 2,500 troops to meet the 31,000 troop goal (eventually, the UK, Canada, Poland, and Romania provided 2,000 of the requested 2,500). NATO lacks the airlift capability to deploy its force (although the alliance did agree in 2006 to purchase 3 badly needed C-17s). Only 6 of the 26 member countries spend the recommended 2% of GDP on defense, and many of the states impose caveats and restrictions on the soldiers they do deploy. For example, Germany imposed a prohibition on German troops conducting "extended patrols," or the restrictions that many states place on their soldiers serving in the more volatile regions.
Earlier this week, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper threatened to pull the Canadian contingent out of Afghanistan if more NATO allies did not increase their presence. While Harper would like the Canadian forces to stay beyond their currently scheduled withdrawal date of February 2009, he "accepted the recommendations of an independent panel which last week urged Canada to end its mission in the southern city of Kandahar unless NATO provided an extra 1,000 troops as well as helicopters and aerial reconnaissance vehicles." According to the report, "Canada is exasperated at the refusal of many other NATO nations to commit more troops to Afghanistan, in particular to southern areas where the Taliban is strong."
All of this is exceedingly bad news. NATO is absolutely vital to US, European, and global security interests in many fronts. For the US, NATO provides multinational support and burden-sharing, both of which are particularly important in the face of international disapproval of the invasion of Iraq and the strain being placed on the US military as a result. For the Europeans, NATO is, almost literally, the only way in which they can remain military relevant in the age of total US military dominance. If NATO is incapable of carrying out military operations and its credibility erodes, all the more burden will fall on the US to provide security and policing for the world, a development that would only stress US capabilities and reputation even more. For the world, NATO provides a credible military response to problems with which the UN can not, will not, and should not deal.
Despite the predictions of many realists, NATO did not disintegrate with the end of the Cold War. Rather, it has become a vital tool for democratizing the East European states, and has allowed the US multilateral approval for military actions (Kosovo). NATO must not be allowed to collapse, or even lose its credibility as a result of failures in Afghanistan. The US must put massive pressure on France, Germany, Italy, and Spain, just to name a few, to increase their commitments to their own militaries and to NATO as well. NATO's defense spending requirement must become mandatory, states must agree to give up the right to place restrictions on the operations of their troops assigned to NATO command, and procurement and spending must be driven by military, not political need.
The US, Europe, and the world need NATO. Countries must not be allowed to free-ride on the US. No one is asking them to develop a massive military presence like that of the US; but it shouldn't be too much to ask powerful states like France and Germany to be able to deploy 5,000 well-equipped and well-trained troops to fight al Qaeda and the Taliban and to try to build democracy in a part of the world that is more important than ever.