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NATO hindsight…

February 1, 2015

Summary: What lessons learned for NATO from Afghanistan?

I was asked this question as part of my work at wikistrat:

One of the main obstacles for NATO in Afghanistan was the continued subordination of military forces to national political leaders despite the Alliance’s unified command structure (e.g. caveats about use of force, where they can deploy).  What, if anything, has been learned from NATO’s time in Afghanistan that may help us avoid the pitfalls of these sometimes contradictory chains-of-command in the future?

NATO symbol, flags and HQ

lessons are “identified”, but less frequently “learned”…

Of course, this was a very significant problem for the international operations across Afghanistan.  When I worked inside the Ministry of Defence over 2001 – 2006, in my part of the department we tried to avoid the term “lessons learned”, preferring, instead, to talk of “lessons identified”.  I feel that the nature of NATO is such that it will always have a significant element of these command and control problems in a large-scale or complex combat environment such as Afghanistan.

The members of NATO are quite diverse, more so than in the 1980s, with different historic, cultural and military experiences. Some, such as the (UK and US) have quite extensive combat experience (albeit in specific types of operation).  Others, perhaps more recently NATO members, have a less extensive range of military assets, financial resources or competences.

I am currently working on a study of “hybrid warfare”, in the context of the conflict in eastern Ukraine and the annexation of the Crimea by Russia.  The options for initiating and maintaining conflicts are now incredibly diverse: for example the use of cyber-attacks, propaganda, Special Forces, intelligence groups, local militias, etc.  An “obvious” war, in which the conflict is formally declared, protagonists are clearly defined and goals and objectives delimited (the Second World War, in effect) looks less likely than ever before.

As conflicts become more complex – and deniable – I suspect national governments are more likely to wish to exert a tighter control over the nature of the deployment of their national forces and whether they get involved in the first place.  This will likely be exacerbated by a couple of factors:

a) The decreasing “tolerance” for casualties within the populations of NATO countries
b) Advances of information technology which give a much more immediate picture to national audiences and government decision-makers alike

My sense, therefore, is that if there is any lesson learned at all from the Afghanistan experience, it is that national caveats and other forms of direct national control that bypass official NATO command structures are almost inevitable.  NATO force commanders may have to get used to the idea that a certain amount of tactful negotiation will be necessary.  The price of having an extra national flag flying in the “coalition of the willing” will be the acceptance that some not all members are the same.


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