Caveats and COIN

by Philipp Tomio

The Research Division at the NATO Defense College (NDC) in Rome recently released a noteworthy NDC Forum Paper titled “Counterinsurgency: the challenge for NATO strategy and operations.” In eleven chapters, this volume, edited by Dr. Christopher M. Schnaubelt, the Transformation Chair at NDC, covers a broad array of topics in counterinsurgency strategy and operations, focusing primarily on the lessons of Afghanistan: the challenge of security force assistance, the German experience in RC-North, the development of NATO special operations capabilities, among others. In his introduction to the volume, Schnaubelt quotes a Washington Post op-ed by former NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, in which Scheffer argued for “a more comprehensive approach” to NATO’s Afghan mission:

[NATO’s operations in Afghanistan] are still too much of a patchwork, with individual countries assigned to specific geographic areas. […] Multiple approaches to military operations and development assistance within one mission reduce effectiveness and can strain solidarity. [NATO] should have more common approaches to [its] efforts, including fewer geographic restrictions on where forces can go in support of each other.

Schnaubelt is quick to identify one of NATO’s primary strategic challenges concerning the Afghan mission:the alliance continues to be plagued by disagreements over how to define and confront violence in Afghanistan – should NATO prosecute a full-blown COIN campaign or is ISAF merely a stabilization and reconstruction operation? – as well as the relative military contributions by alliance members to the overall effort. In addition to mere force numbers, as Schnaubelt points out, ISAF is NATO’s first Article V “mutual defense” operation that, to the dismay of many in the alliance, is hampered by operational restrictions or “caveats” ¬†imposed by certain alliance members on their forces. These restrictions prohibit certain ISAF partners from engaging in full-spectrum combat operations across different regional commands. Unsurprisingly, these caveats, fueled by allegations that certain alliance members are unwilling (some of them may well also be unable) to shoulder “their fair share of the burden,” have raised the “spectre of a ‘two-tier’ alliance,” according to Schnaubelt.

Needless to say, an outcome in Afghanistan that further cemented divisions between caveated and non-caveated troop-contributing states would be a disaster for the alliance. The Afghan mission, beyond its strategic importance, has also become a test of NATO’s credibility as an effective military alliance. Thus, any serious strategic review of the NATO mission Afghanistan must attempt to break down, or at least loosen up significantly, these burdensome national caveats. A removal of these operational restrictions would have two immediate effects. First, it would significantly improve NATO’s punch against the various insurgent groups in Afghanistan. Second, it would invigorate a struggling alliance and boost troop morale on the ground. But the key take-away for the political leaders of these “caveated” forces is this: if you want to succeed in Afghanistan and if you want to succeed sooner rather than later, then free your soldiers from their operational straightjackets.

Philipp Tomio is a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute.