Page 1 of 2 NATO hears 'noise before defeat'
By M K Bhadrakumar
When the blame-game begins in an indeterminate war, it is time to sit up and
take note. US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates' interview with the Los Angeles
Times on Wednesday rings alarm bells.
There has been no effort to claim he was misquoted. In fact, Pentagon press
secretary Geoff Morrell confirmed the chief was "not backing off his
fundamental criticism that NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] needs to
do a better job in training
Morrell made a little concession, though, that Gates meant no offence to any
particular NATO country. NATO secretary general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer responded
he had the "greatest respect" for NATO forces fighting in southern Afghanistan.
He advised Washington, "Combating insurgency is a complex thing, and not always
easy." At The Hague, the American ambassador was
summoned and asked to "clarify". Dutch Defense Minister Van Middlekoop publicly
regretted, "This is not the Robert Gates we have come to know." Other European
politicians expressed surprise, indignation.
In NATO history there have been few such laundering of dirty linen in public
view. Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and Taliban head Mullah Omar have
achieved something that Soviet leaders Josef Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev and
Leonid Brezhnev couldn't.
Washington mocks NATO
Gates' criticism was pinpointed - NATO was a lemon. He said: "I'm worried we're
deploying [military advisors] that are not properly trained and I'm worried we
have some military forces that don't know how to do counter-insurgency
operations ... Most of the European forces, NATO forces, are not trained in
counter-insurgency; they were trained for the Fulda Gap [NATO's Cold War battle
lines in Germany]."
Gates was giving vent to pent-up frustrations. Finally, Afghanistan is
threatening to be a blemish on his successfully nurtured record in public
service. On December 11, at the US Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on
Afghanistan, Gates admitted somberly, "If I had to sum up the current situation
in Afghanistan, I would say there is reason for optimism, but tempered by
Gates warned the NATO mission "has exposed real limitations in the way the
alliance is, or organized, operated and equipped. I believe the problem arises
in a large part due to the way various allies view the very nature of the
alliance in the 21st century, where in a post-Cold War environment, we have to
be ready to operate in distant locations against insurgencies and terrorist
networks." He solicited help from US Congressmen for "pressuring" the NATO
capitals "to do the difficult work of persuading their own citizens [in Europe]
of the need to step up to this challenge."
Gates again spoke forcefully at the meeting of NATO defense ministers in
Edinburgh, Scotland, on December 14. But "no one at the table stood up and
said: 'I agree with that'," he later lamented.
This week, the Pentagon underscored its displeasure by making a deployment of
3,200 Marine Corps to southern Afghanistan, bringing the US presence to about
30,000 troops. The NATO force in Afghanistan numbers about 40,000, of which
14,000 are Americans. The Washington Post described the US move as one to "fill
a void created in part by NATO's inability to fight the insurgency adequately,
a job the allies never signed up to do". The majority of the marines will be
directly engaged in fighting in the south alongside British, Australian, Dutch
and Canadian troops, who have taken record casualties during the past year.
Of course, shadowboxing is to be expected in the run-up to the NATO summit
meeting in Bucharest, Romania, in April, where Afghanistan will be a key agenda
item. But that cannot explain away the unusual public discord. The reluctance
on the part of major NATO powers to commit more troops to Afghanistan arises as
much out of profound disagreement with Washington over the objectives of the
war and the fashion in which the US spearheads the war as in deference to
growing anti-war sentiment in Europe.
A general hits out
Gates' criticism draws heavily from a recent study authored by the US general
who commanded the forces in Afghanistan from October 2003 until May 2005,
Lieutenant General David W Barno, in the prestigious journal Military Review.
Barno is an influential voice in the US defense community. He chose to begin
his paper devoted to the counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan, citing
lines by ancient Chinese general Sun Tzu, "Strategy without tactics is the
slowest road to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat."
Barno claimed the US counter-insurgency strategy during his period produced
"positive and dramatic" results. He gave the "center of gravity" in his
strategy to the Afghan people and not the "enemy". He kept in view the Afghan
people's "immense enmity to foreign forces" and deduced that eschewing the
"Soviet attempt at omnipresence" in Afghanistan, only through a "light
footprint approach" instead, could the war be successfully fought.
Barno wrote that Afghan people's tolerance for a foreign presence was "a bag of
capital [that was] finite and had to be spent slowly and frugally" and,
therefore, under his charge US forces took great care to avoid Afghan
casualties, detainee abuse, or transgressions in observance of respect to
tribal leaders or causing offence to traditional Afghan culture.
Second, Barno outlined that he and the then-US ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad,
bonded as a team and they had a "unity of purpose" in ensuring perfect
interagency and international-level coordination. According to Barno, the slide
began in mid-2005 after he and Khalilzad were reassigned. Washington then
decided to publicly announce that NATO was assuming responsibility for the war
and that the US was making a token withdrawal of 2,500 troops.
"Unsurprisingly, this was widely viewed in the region as the first signal that
the United States was 'moving for the exits', thus reinforcing long-held doubts
about the prospects of sustained American commitment. In my judgement, these
public moves have served more than any other US actions since 2001 [the fall of
the Taliban] to alter the calculus of both our friends and our adversaries
across the region - and not in our favor."
Barno implied NATO messed up the top-notch command structure he created. The
result is, "With the advent of NATO military leadership, there is today no
single comprehensive strategy to guide the US, NATO, or international effort."
Consequently, he says, the unity of purpose - both interagency and
international - has suffered and unity of command is fragmented, and tactics
have "seemingly reverted to earlier practices such as the aggressive use of
Barno makes some chilling conclusions. First, he says the "bag of capital"
representing the tolerance of Afghan people for foreign forces is diminishing.
Second, NATO narrowly focuses on the "20% military dimension" of the war, while
ignoring the 80% comprising non-military components. Third, the "center of
gravity" of the war is no longer the Afghan people but the "enemy". Fourth,
President Hamid Karzai's government is ineffectual "under growing pressure from
powerful interests within his administration". Fifth, corruption, crime,
poverty and a burgeoning narcotics trade have eroded public confidence in
Karzai. Finally, "NATO, the designated heir to an originally popular
international effort, is threatened by the prospects of mounting disaffection
among the Afghan people."
What can be achieved?
Somewhere along the line, mud-slinging had to happen. Yet, almost everything
Barno wrote could be true. Barno drew a handsome self-portrait. He whitewashes
a controversial phase of the war. NATO inherited a dysfunctional war. By
end-2006, it was no longer a winnable war. When the alliance's defense
ministers gathered in the Dutch seaside resort of Noordwijk last November to
commemorate the first anniversary of NATO in Afghanistan, the crisis atmosphere
There were no offers of major reinforcements by the member countries. The Dutch
indicated they were close to withdrawing their 1,600-strong contingent from
Uruzgan province in southern Afghanistan the coming autumn. The likely knock-on
effect of the Dutch decision on countries such as Canada worried everyone
present at the meeting. Germany, France, Italy and Spain insisted they were
constrained by their national caveats guiding deployment of troops on
The result has been a sort of "Balkanization" of Afghanistan, as Daan Everts,
outgoing civilian representative of the NATO secretary general in Kabul,
admitted to al-Jazeera in a recent interview. "You have a little 'German
Afghanistan' in the north, an 'Italian Afghanistan' in the west, 'Dutch
Afghanistan' in Uruzgan and a 'Canadian Afghanistan' in Kandahar and so on.
Geographically we [NATO] have been fractured, but also sectorally with equal
ineffectiveness - like giving the justice sector totally to the Italians,
counter-narcotics to the British, the police to Germans, anti-terrorism to the
Everts was unusually frank for a high-ranking NATO official. He said Afghan
reconstruction has been a "bonanza for consultants, serious consultants,
half-baked consultants, marginal consultants and mailbox consultants"; there
has been an outflow of resources from Afghanistan of up to 40% of aid given to
the country. "So there is this aid industry that descends on a poor nation and
runs away with part of the loot." He called for a government in Kabul that is
"more serious about problems" such as corruption, drug-trafficking and
In such a mess, Lord (Paddy) Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon is due to arrive in
Kabul shortly as the United Nations' super envoy. Is a British colonial-style
governor the right answer? Lord Ashdown - former Royal Marine commando and
special forces officer, Liberal Democrat leader, member of Parliament, the
European Union's high representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina