NATO’s next mission – what to consider?

The war in Afghanistan claimed more lives, time and money than any other campaign in NATO’s history. Unless we take these lessons to heart, a war to destroy Daesh will be worse. 

By: /
December 9, 2015
A NATO soldier walks in front of closed shops near the site of a car bomb blast in Kabul, Afghanistan August 22, 2015. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood

I recently addressed the NATO Parliamentary Assembly at its Annual Session in Norway, in my capacity as CEO of the Global Organization of Parliamentarians Against Corruption (GOPAC), on what seemed like a distant question: drawing on the experience of Afghanistan, how should NATO conduct a future expeditionary campaign, which might be precipitated by an attack on one of its members? Yet the terrorist attacks in Paris have given this question a terrible new urgency.

The lessons of Afghanistan were purchased at a bitter cost: the war claimed more lives, more years and more money than any other campaign in NATO’s history. Unless the alliance takes those lessons to heart, a war in Syria and Iraq to extinguish Daesh — the self-styled Islamic State of Iraq & the Levant — will be worse.

In my view, the gravest mistake NATO made in Afghanistan was to confuse allies for friends, to believe that those who fought with us against the Taliban would be trustworthy partners in reconstructing the country. Worse still were the efforts to appease those allies by allowing them free rein as they pillaged the state. Ultimately, the warlords of the Karzai regime were as much murderous fundamentalists as the Taliban, only greed was their God. 

More broadly, NATO states confused having a common reason for war with having a common objective in war. The alliance was certainly united in its conviction that al-Qaeda attack on the World Trade Center demanded a military response. However, this clarity of impetus obscured deep differences in goals. 

Was the objective of the war to deny al-Qaeda the use of Afghanistan as a base of operations for future attacks? Was it to destroy the Taliban? Was it to disrupt terrorist networks sprawling across borders? Was it to rescue the Afghan people from a humanitarian catastrophe? Was it to satisfy a craving for justice? Was it to meet the minimum requirements of treaties and public sentiment?

At different stages of the campaign, different NATO governments embraced different ends and it became increasingly difficult for the alliance’s citizens to recognize what “victory” would look like and when it would be time to call their troops home. 

After my address, my GOPAC colleague, French Senator Joëlle Garriaud-Maylam, asked me to meet with her fellow legislators in France’s parliament. It was important to continue the discussion, so that if, at some point in the unforeseeable future, NATO states had to reply to an attack on one of its members, the alliance would be ready to take sober, considered decisions. 

A few weeks later, 129 people lay dead in the streets of Paris. The future waits upon no one’s pleasure. The only question is whether we learn from the past.

In any military campaign against Daesh, how will we identify effective allies on the ground who are less pernicious than our common enemy? How will we ensure that neither chaos nor tyranny fill the vacuum left after a successful military campaign? Whom will Syrians be able to trust to rebuild their country?

States that opt to train the local resistance will face a difficult choice over whether to supply those fighters with arms. Trained but unarmed, they would be of no use to anyone. Trained and armed, they may eventually turn their weapons against us, as the Taliban did after their war against the Soviet Union.

States that opt to participate in a bombing campaign will have to set imponderable metrics to assess their effectiveness in a war that no one believes can be won from the air.

States that opt to deploy ground troops will need to ask themselves how long their own people will support such a campaign if Daesh continues to burn prisoners of war alive, as they did with Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh.

The most difficult question of all will be that of our ultimate objective: what does it mean to defeat an enemy that numbers in the tens of thousands and that will continue to stab at us while even one of them draws breath? How will a campaign in Syria and Iraq diminish Daesh attacks in the West when European citizens have been the perpetrators? How can we be victorious against an enemy infatuated with martyrdom?

We cannot come to an accommodation with an adversary whose purpose is our annihilation. We cannot use deterrence against an adversary that wants to die. We must destroy them, or be destroyed by them. But an effective military strategy requires more than just a willingness to unleash force — it also demands political integrity, clear objectives and a focus on long-term outcomes.

This article was first published by the National Post