Too Much "No" In NATO

Posted: Jan 29, 2008 12:01 AM
Too Much "No" In NATO

If the truth hurts, you can do two things: Get angry at the messenger, or fix the situation so the truth won’t hurt anymore.

Recently, Defense Secretary Robert Gates engaged in some truth-telling that hurt some of our allies. When asked about the progress of the war in Afghanistan (which is officially under NATO control), he told the Los Angeles Times, “I’m worried we have some military forces that don’t know how to do counterinsurgency operations.”

Gates later made it clear that he respected the contributions made by troops from specific nations, including Britain, Canada and the Netherlands. But his overall criticism is valid.

Let’s do the math. Roughly 41,000 NATO forces are in Afghanistan. Some 19,000 -- nearly half -- are U.S. troops. The remaining 22,000 come from a combined 38 NATO and non-NATO member nations. Too many of these alliance members are punching below their weight.

For example, Germany has 3,200 troops in Afghanistan, and commands NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in the north. But Germans are not allowed to deploy more than two hours from a “role two medical facility,” a stationary hospital set up to perform emergency surgery. That, clearly, limits German deployments.

So do the restrictions on their helicopter pilots, who won’t fly after dark. Other NATO forces have been forced to call off missions when the German pilots left the field in mid-afternoon so they could return to their base before sundown.

As a Norwegian officer told The Times of London, “It’s hopeless. We were attacking the bad guys, then [at] three or four o’clock, the helicopters are leaving.” That attack stalled, by the way, until American Humvees arrived to reinforce it the next day.

Financial contributions are wanting as well.

Last year 20 of the 26 NATO members spent less than a meager 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense. By comparison, the United States spends just under 4 percent, and that’s barely adequate for our needs. Our allies must stop relying on Uncle Sam to pick up the tab for their defense.

As evidence, consider NATO’s lack of planes. There’s no point to having an intercontinental military alliance if you can’t deploy its forces quickly across long distances. Yet when NATO wanted to send troops to Afghanistan, it had to borrow American C-17s, because it didn’t own a single aircraft capable of getting its forces there. NATO has agreed to buy several long-range aircraft, but the first won’t be delivered until later this year.

Finally, NATO must address its members’ lack of willingness to serve. In October 2006, Gen. James Jones -- then NATO’s top commander -- estimated that member nations had placed more than 100 restrictions on what their troops could do. At least half of those restrictions, he said, significantly hampered alliance operations. In fact, only six NATO nations placed no restrictions on the forces they sent to Afghanistan.

NATO was a critical reason the West won the Cold War. Just by existing, it proved to the Soviets that many nations were united against them, ready to defend freedom at a moment’s notice. To remain relevant, the alliance must beef up its forces to send the same message to today’s threat, radical Islam.

It’s worth noting that Gates’ criticism didn’t upset everyone, since some nations have well-trained troops. “U.K. forces have extensive experience in counterinsurgency” and maintain a “good working relationship with the U.S. and other NATO allies,” the British Ministry of Defense said.

Britain is confident because it knows its troops are prepared. The truth doesn’t hurt in London. But to make NATO the alliance it needs to be, we must extend that truth to more capitals across western Europe.