Can NATO be Rehabilitated?

BY Herschel Smith
15 years, 12 months ago

In Command Structure Changes for Afghanistan, using a Voice of America report, we discussed the talks going on within the Pentagon and even openly by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates indicating that there may be command structure changes coming for Operation Enduring Freedom.  These hints come right after the announcement that General Petraeus will take over CENTCOM in the coming months, and the intention seems to be fairly clear that the U.S. wants a more independent role in the Afghanistan campaign.

Rumsfeld left us with [at least] three artifacts of his command over OEF.  First, a small footprint model for COIN.  Second, a rapid drawdown of forces, and third, turnover of the campaign to NATO.  All three decisions have proven to be wrong with consequences bordering on disastrous.  Gates is attempting to reverse the final remaining impediment to success of the effort in Afghanistan – NATO.

Another alternative is discussed by Kip at Abu Muqawama, NATO’s Counterinsurgency Doctrine could stand some overhaul.

Doctrine, as Colin Gray once wrote, is the skeleton upon which the sinew and flesh of armies are built. Perhaps then, with no NATO doctrine for the conduct of a war among the people, it should be no surprise that the NATO-led ISAF in Afghanistan has often appeared spineless.

NATO has recognized this problem and has commissioned the Dutch who have been operating in Uruzgan province alongside the Australians to write NATO’s counterinsurgency doctrine.

This past month, a smattering of counterinsurgency thinkers to include the Counterinsurgency Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth met with the doctrine’s lead writers to provide inputs. That said, the “A-team” for developing US counterinsurgency doctrine has not been called out to facilitate and assist. Kip hopes this is not indicative of the amount of emphasis that NATO is placing on the doctrine itself.

Kip goes on to describe several changes that need to occur to the COIN doctrine in OEF, all of which are good.  Kip is wasting time and brain power on a hopeless cause.  If the Dutch are in charge it doesn’t bode well since they have no counterinsurgency experience.  They also recently deployed troops to the campaign who were surprised that the Taliban were engaged in armed resistance to NATO forces.  The British want to pull back on the violence, reminiscent of their irrelevant recollections of Northern Ireland.

Quite simply, the U.S. doesn’t have the time to teach counterinsurgency to nations which have never engaged in such.  But the problem runs deeper than COIN.  The various international armies represented in Afghanistan have different perceptions at home along with varying levels of support for their engagement.  This fact causes the retreat to FOBs in spite of and regardless of COIN doctrine.  This, combined with troublesome and arrogant resistance among senior leadership in Afghanistan causes bureaucratic red tape to continue to undermine the efforts.

Gates knows that the promotion of Petraeus to command CENTCOM might be an irrelevant move unless U.S. forces are free to conduct counterinsurgency as they need to.  Further attempts to rehabilitate NATO will only waste more time – time that is not available in the campaign.  Rather than rehabilitate something that is incorrigible by nature, Gates is trying to recast the problem as counterinsurgency rather than NATO intransigence.


  1. On April 27, 2008 at 3:48 pm, jonesgp1996 said:

    I think it would be a mistake to give up on NATO. Frankly, ISAF is an economy of force mission while the bulk of US forces remain in Iraq. Furthermore, as much of a pain in the butt as it might seem to have NATO in Afghanistan, it would be worse without them. I agree that operationally and tactically we could do more if our hands weren’t tied by coalition warfare, but strategically, NATO provides legitimacy that we just don’t have in Iraq. People pooh-poohed getting UN SCRs for Iraq, but look where it’s gotten us. Had we had the major European allies on board, we wouldn’t have had to do the Surge by ourselves. There is a value to alliances and coalitions; maybe we just need to do more to increase that value by taking the lead on developing NATO’s COIN doctrine. It shouldn’t be much of a stretch – a lot of NATO doctrine is based on US doctrine, anyway.
    I will concede that some our NATO allies just aren’t up to the task, and that’s attributable to both domestic politics and military capabilities. Instead of trying to get all to give more (which is a condition you just can change due to some countries’ domestic political situations), why don’t we focus on getting more out of those who are willing to do more (Denmark, Britain, Canada, Holland, France, to mention a few)? And I don’t mean more people – just more capability.

  2. On April 27, 2008 at 6:37 pm, cplpunishment said:

    ‘U.S. doesn’t have the time to teach counterinsurgency to nations which have never engaged in such’
    Both ignorant AND arrogant. Most of what the US has re-learned (because it was already known to the British and French) about COIN in Iraq it did so despite getting it all wrong again and again. The intelligent learn from others mistakes and experience, the US learns by making all the old mistakes for itself. Heard of Malaya? Aden? Rhodesia? We were doing COIN successfully while you were getting your asses kicked in SE Asia. So don’t come the braggart. You may have only heard about N Ireland but thats just your ignorance.
    As you well bloody know, there is a split in NATO where half of everybody won’t go into hot areas and engage the enemy. Britain is on the same side of that split (along with Canada, Australia and France) as the US.
    Oh and by the way, its stupid when the Brits do QT deals with the Taliban in Afghanistan, but clever when the US does QT deals with the Sunnis in Anbar. You may not have read any history of the NWFP but some of the rest of us have. Much easier to pay them off than kill them all.

  3. On April 27, 2008 at 7:29 pm, Herschel Smith said:

    First of all, I like your pseudonym (handle). It is probably the best I have seen.

    Second, listen very carefully. As to the balance of your comment, back off of the yelling. Posting comments is a privilege, not a right. If you wish to disagree with my positions, that’s acceptable. Just above your comment is one that disagrees, and does so respectfully (and better than you do). You’ll learn to do that or get kicked out. I don’t owe you a forum to discuss your views.

    As to the actual content of the balance of your post, there isn’t much there to which I feel a need to respond. If you had taken the time to research my stuff before you screamed you would know that I have other posts that address the very real differences between what we did in Anbar (from a position of strength) and what the Brits did in Helmund (from a position of weakness). Quite simply, there is no analogy.

    As for SE Asia, the COIN campaign was won. The war was lost when NVA regulars came in and Congress lost heart. But this is very far afield. Next time, try to stay on point and respectful, and do your homework before posting.

    Oh. And I am talking about the Dutch. Don’t be stolid (although it must be pointed out that there is a very real doctrinal split between how the U.S. did COIN in Anbar and the British did it in Basra). We all see the results.

  4. On April 29, 2008 at 11:56 am, Messelink said:

    You have some valid points, but are mistaken on other and on even other points I don’t quite agree.

    “If the Dutch are in charge it doesn’t bode well since they have no counterinsurgency experience. They also recently deployed troops to the campaign who were surprised that the Taliban were engaged in armed resistance to NATO forces.”

    The first sentance is just plain wrong, as the Dutch with their colonial past have ample experience. From (found by google with “dutch counterinsurgency”):

    “For example the British, French and Americans have not only fought recent insurgencies, but also gained counterinsurgency experience during their colonial era. The Dutch forces share a similar background. During the initial stages of the ISAF-mission and the operation in the Iraqi province Al-Muthanna Dutch soldiers had a taste of fighting insurgencies. Even earlier peace keeping operations as in Cam-bodia and Lebanon brought some experiences. However, the major part of the Dutch counterinsurgency experiences was gained in the colonial past. In particular the Dutch East Indies turned out to be a hard but valuable learning school.”

    The second sentance is a distortion and simplification of facts. The fact that the population fled to the still dutch controlled area signals which side they prefer. I don’t want to turn this into a debate on wether the Dutch have the right strategy though, but it’s clear they have one.

    “The British want to pull back on the violence, reminiscent of their irrelevant recollections of Northern Ireland.”

    Why irrelevant? And are the other british experiences irrelevant as well?

    “[..] unless U.S. forces are free to conduct counterinsurgency as they need to.”

    The problem in my opinion is the lack of an overall synchronized strategy, which ever that may be. Let different nations run off and do their own thing will be couter-productive and make the coalition lose any credibility left.

    “As for SE Asia, the COIN campaign was won.”

    To my information, there was never a COIN campaign. On a small scale atempts at COIN were tried and were successful, but they were never incorporated in a full strategy for the conflict.

    To be honest, I find the tone of your article a bit misplaced. The US did not invent COIN, nor does it have a better track-record then any of the nations you mentioned. ISAF has spend less time in Afghanistan’s south then the OEF and I wouldn’t say they were doing worse. Fact is that the US needs NATO and others (not to forget!) and that means compromise. Wether you like it or not.

  5. On April 29, 2008 at 1:10 pm, Herschel Smith said:

    What I find a lot of times is that readers drop by and comment [1] without having had the knowledge of previous posts I have made on the subject (or tangential subjects, since many of my posts build on ideas that have been long in developing), and [2] without reading the URLs I link to provide background.

    One important point missed in both of the comments above is that first of all, the British experience in Basra was not good, while the U.S. experience in Anbar, while difficult, was successful. This is important not because there is no history of COIN experience by other countries in other eras of history and other parts of the world, but precisely because that is so.

    The British experience in Northern Ireland was, if we face the truth, COIN among their own people. Same language, same basic culture (Protestants and Catholics worship the same God even if different in worship form), same technology, same family structures, etc.

    For Soldiers and Marines to be dropped into Iraq (Middle East, different language, tribal culture, sectarianism prone to killing rather than simply arguing, and a recent history of brutality and torture under one of the worst dictators in world history) is quite literally like being dropped onto another planet.

    COIN must be adaptable, adjusted, maleable, etc. The public also must be behind the campaign, or it won’t succeed. The fact of the matter is that the U.S. needs NATO only to the extent that we aren’t willing to expand the force size and properly fund the war. NATO is functioning as surrogate U.S. forces.

    As to the experience in SE Asia, I know senior level field grade officers (Colonel) who agree with me that the COIN campaign was robust and successful, and the final victory for the North was conventional. Let’s just agree to disagree on that one.

    I have plenty of posts on the issue of talks with the Sunnis in Anbar being done from a position of strength (i.e., more than 2 years of hard core kinetic operations that exhausted the enemy) versus the British experience in Basra being a diminution of security from the beginning due to strategy. This post was not written in a vacuum. This points to the summary of all of the above, which is that the track record you speak of is only partially relevant. The transnational insurgency we face today is of a different paradigm (tribal, at least partially, partially religious and partially not, standoff weapons such as IEDs due to historical era, borderless due to ease of transit, dealing with populations that have been tortured and brutalized, populations that have had to deal with globalization, and so on and on).

    The final point I will make is that while you point to the tone of my post, and share your disagreement with my views, you should realize (by studying the links and links contained in prior links) that this is a continuation of debates happening at the highest levels of the Pentagon as we speak. Gates wants to divorce U.S. troops from the NATO efforts and is looking for a way to do this without offending our NATO partners. So – there are the facts for you.

  6. On April 30, 2008 at 12:16 am, Breakerjump said:

    No! You’re wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong – idiot! I’m smarter than you and you should take your blog down now! Why do you even bother writing?!

    Oh wait, I didn’t translate that into british:

    Bollocks! This blog is pants. Daft American prats, at least we Brits won the Revolu … oh sod off!

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You are currently reading "Can NATO be Rehabilitated?", entry #1060 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Counterinsurgency,NATO and was published April 26th, 2008 by Herschel Smith.

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