Future of NATO Alliance May Hinge on War in Afghanistan

For Release

November 19, 2010

The "Americanization" of NATO's mission in Afghanistan may prove crucial to the future of Afghanistan, but the alliance could suffer long-term harm by being relegated to the position of junior partner to the United States, according to a RAND Corporation study issued today.

The study finds that the results of the Afghanistan mission will have a profound impact on the future of the transatlantic alliance. A successful operation could promote the vision of NATO as a global security alliance capable of taking on a wide range of diplomatic, peacekeeping and combat operations within, and beyond, the treaty area.

But RAND researchers warn that failure in Afghanistan could leave alliance members questioning whether NATO's nation-building goals in the embattled country have been worth the cost, and whether they will support similar missions in the future. RAND is a nonprofit research organization.

"In an alliance where achieving consensus is vital, the United States clearly overshadowing all others highlights the real limits of the transatlantic alliance," said Andrew R. Hoehn, director of RAND Project AIR FORCE and the lead author of the study. "The NATO heads of state must recognize this harsh reality if the alliance is to be successful not only in Afghanistan, but in future endeavors as well."

The study finds that NATO assumed control of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan without a clear strategy and as a result a few alliance members assumed the brunt of the commitment for operations in Afghanistan. NATO troops have overcome restricted rules of engagement, insufficient troop levels and equipment, and growing threats and attacks from enemy forces.

Nonetheless, researchers say that NATO forces have performed reasonably well, given the difficulties of operating at such a distance and with the constraints on NATO's military leaders.

The growing number of NATO casualties has forced the alliance to confront an issue that has been largely absent from previous NATO missions. The uneven distribution of the burdens and risks among security force members is corroding the cohesion of the alliance, researchers find.

As NATO officials determine the future strategic direction of the alliance, researchers acknowledge that the alliance has important responsibilities in Europe and will want to remain involved in the world beyond NATO's immediate area of responsibility, given that other nations will not likely let the alliance remain isolated in its own territory.

The study also makes several recommendations to NATO heads of state, including:

  • Align their expectations with American leaders. The United States must understand the alliance has little more to give the mission in Afghanistan, and NATO officials need to accept that the United States has again stepped in to fill the void and that NATO is supporting an American-led effort. Consistent expectations will aid the development of a long-term strategy for Afghanistan and could help prove the alliance's resiliency.
  • Establish a consensus on the definition of success to serve as a baseline for guiding the completion of the Afghanistan mission. Even as the U.S. takes the lead role, NATO leaders need to dedicate more political will to determining the definition of success. This will require NATO's political and military leaders to coordinate the level of demands, commitment and resources required to complete the mission.
  • Establish a set of guidelines — even informal guidelines — that revalidate the core commitments and spell out rules for the use of force. These guidelines may also direct NATO's commitment to future missions.

Hoehn and co-author Sarah Harting warn that now is a crucial time for the future of the alliance.

"Whatever the outcome in Afghanistan, and whether or not NATO adopts guidelines, it seems clear the alliance will not enter any new commitments lightly and might well for a time focus on shoring up relationships in the alliance before taking on new responsibilities beyond the North Atlantic area," Hoehn said. "To the extent that Afghanistan is seen as risking NATO itself, most of the allies will be highly reluctant to take up new risks that are not seen as responding to a direct threat to the alliance and its members."

The study, "Risking NATO: Testing the Limits of the Alliance in Afghanistan," was sponsored and prepared for the United States Air Force and can be found at www.rand.org.

The study was prepared by RAND Project AIR FORCE, a federally funded research and development center for studies and analysis aimed at providing independent policy alternatives for the U.S. Air Force.

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