Going to War With the Allies You Have

by Stephen Saideman

IN MY YEAR on the Joint Staff a decade ago, two phrases appeared in all talking points about the NATO missions in the Balkans: ‘In Together, Out Together’ and ‘Hasten the Day’.  The first referred to a promise by President George W. Bush that the US would not pull out of Bosnia and Kosovo before the Allies did.  The second referred to trying to foster conditions in the Balkans such that NATO could leave sooner rather than later.

How did that play out? NATO’s Stabilization Force (SFOR) became a small residual headquarters, the Canadians and Americans left (mostly), and  the Europeans remained behind under a new EU mission (EUFOR, for 'European Force').  As far as hastening the day, eight years later a much diminished EUFOR is still in Bosnia, and NATO is still very much in Kosovo, still playing, after more than a decade, an active and pivotal role.

The reason for the nostalgic look back at NATO in 2002 is that 2012 is looking very similar.  NATO recently met in Chicago, approving of various decisions with two standing out: the future in Afghanistan and Smart Defense.  Regarding the former the 'In Together, Out Together' promise has already been made and broken, while much lip service as well to Hastening the Day.   France has elected a new President promising to leave Afghanistan now (2012) rather than tomorrow (2013), but it is not the first member of the Alliance to break its promise .  The Dutch and the Canadians were the first to cease combat operations, even if both returned with less risky training missions.  Australia, while not a NATO member, is an ISAF troop contributor and vital part of NATO’s efforts in Afghanistan. It is also looking to an early exit.  2014 was supposed to be the year of transition, but now it is looking more like the year in which the international community will complete its departure. 

With 'In Together, Out Together' busted, how about 'Hasten the Day'?  Ceding more and more territory to Afghan control seems reasonable.  But if hastening the day is understood to mean achieving some semblance of progress on the key non-military pillars of governance and development, then hastening that day’s arrival will not have achieved much.

The reality is that patience has been worn thin, by a combination of fiscal crises, very uneven burden-sharing, mounting casualties (especially “green on blue” attacks involving Afghan security forces shooting at NATO personnel), frustration at perceived lack of progress, and President Karzai’s frequently alienating public statements .  It is actually remarkable that it took this long, more than ten years after 9/11 and more than half that since NATO got seriously involved (2005-2006).  Given the difficulties of measuring progress and the many opportunities for bad things to occur (two major prison breaks, at least two major attacks close to Parliament, Koran burnings, riots and all the rest), NATO’s staying power has actually been quite impressive.

NATO has demonstrated operational stick-to-it-iveness while members have learned  that they can’t rely too much on each other.  The Smart Defense initiative is about members doing peacetime planning.  They coordinate their weapons procurement so that countries can specialize and not duplicate.  This makes a lot of sense in a perfect world, with each NATO member performing certain functions so that as an alliance, all capability requirements are covered.  But if Afghanistan and Libya have taught us anything, it’s that allies are unreliable, as politically unpalatable as that may seem.  Specialization creates dependence on others to compensate for undeveloped or underdeveloped capabilities, but can result in a dangerous imbalance when coupled with the inevitable restrictions such as national caveats that limit how and when those capabilities are deployed on operations

Smart Defense planners should consider which allies they expect to rely upon and plan accordingly.  There are relatively systematic differences among the allies that create two categories: those with and those without coalition governments (Denmark is a key exception),1 Birds of a feather should flock together. The British, French and Americans can plan together to rely upon each other as their political systems tend to produce less caveats and other restrictions on how their troops are used in NATO operations.  Member states with  coalition governments, such as the Italians, Spaniards and Germans, can plan together since they always seem to be among the most restricted.  The real challenge is for countries that have been inconsistent and that are tempted to pool or partner with countries that do not share the same style of behavior.  So, the Belgian-Dutch combination makes sense for many reasons, but they may not be as compatible as some would expect given how constrained Belgium was in Afghanistan and how assertive it was in the Libyan mission. 

The reality is that fiscal pressures will predominate, forcing countries to cut defence budgets, so planning to specialize to deal with these pressures makes a great deal of sense.  But military planners and their civilian bosses should be clear-eyed about the consequences.  National caveats created problems in Afghanistan, but they’re likely to be even worse on the next mission where dependencies are greater due to Smart Defense planning. 

To be clear, NATO remains really the only choice for multilateral military operations. Coalitions of the willing have many of the same problems as NATO (including caveats and the like) but with few of the benefits. NATO has shown great persistence in very difficult circumstances.  Because each member of the Alliance faces its own domestic challenges when engaged in a multilateral military operation, NATO will always be sub-optimal.  That does not mean that these countries should not rely upon NATO, just that they should do so with a full appreciation that many of the promises made—in together, out together, hastening the day, smart defence—are easily revised and re-interpreted.



1. Stephen M. Saideman and David P. Auerswald, 'Comparing Caveats: Understanding the Sources of National Restrictions upon NATO's Mission in Afghanistan,' International Studies Quarterly Vol. 56, No. 1 (March 2012): 67–84.

URL: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1468-2478.2011.00700.x/full


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Stephen Saideman holds the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.  In addition to his books, The Ties That Divide: Ethnic Politics, Foreign Policy and International Conflict and For Kin or Country: Xenophobia, Nationalism and War (with R. William Ayres) and Intra-State Conflict, Governments and Security (with Marie-Joelle Zahar), he has published articles and book chapters on the international relations and comparative politics of nationalism, ethnic conflict and civil war.  He spent 2001-2002 on the U.S. Joint Staff working in the Strategic Planning and Policy Directorate as part of a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellowship.  Saideman is now completing a book on NATO’s experience in Afghanistan, while also continuing his work on the international relations of ethnic conflict by focusing on the dynamics of diasporas.


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