Thursday 23 February 2012

After Afghanistan: Where Next for Britain and NATO?

Sophie Stewart

ISAF Forces gather at the memorial ground of HQ ISAF in Kabul, Afghanistan, Feb. 5, 2012 for the weekly memorial service held for the military service members that gave their lives while performing their duties during the NATO-led security mission in Afghanistan. (Photo by MT VALVERDE Christian French Navy) ISAF

The Government’s confirmation that Britain would be sticking to a 2014 pull-out of forces from Afghanistan, matching the timetable of the US and NATO for withdrawal, finally gives a firm date to the end of operations that have seen British troops on the ground for over ten years. While commitments have been made regarding the continuation of reconstruction and training relationships, the drawn-down in numbers is scheduled to accelerate over the next two years. 
Regardless of how success is to be measured, or how this latest invasion of Afghanistan is judged by history, it has had significant consequences for the way in which NATO and the allied members operate. The forces of the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) which has operated in Afghanistan over the course of the decade have provided a complex case through which NATO members have, for the first time, operated extensively together out of area and as such the experiences and lessons learnt will undoubtedly have a long-lasting impact on the future of NATO. 
Afghanistan is just the latest of NATO’s operations and as the Strategic Defence and Security Review made clear, NATO remains the bedrock of British defence with the alliance being the highest priority for national security. The UK is a founding member of NATO and to commemorate the 60th anniversary the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have published a work that considers both the transformation of the alliance but also the role that the UK has played and will continue to play in the future. 
British soldiers and Afghan police near Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan MoD Handout/EPA
The first four decades of NATO’s existence were defined by the threat of the USSR; it was the front line of defence in the Cold War in Europe. In 1989, the fall of the Berlin wall and the subsequent collapse of the USSR ended the Cold War which had defined the second half of the 20th century. NATO, whose existence and purpose were so closely associated with the Cold War threat, faced the daunting task of carving a role for itself in the new world. The 1990s saw operations within its usual sphere, conflicts and operations that dealt largely with the aftermath of the collapse of the USSR. The Balkans became the arena in which the consequences of the end of the Cold War were played out. The new style of operations offered a new role for NATO: peacekeeping, stabilisation and reconstruction. The defensive pact was evolving into an adaptive network to deal with security threats to allies. The Balkans however, remained very much ‘within area’, closer to home even than some of NATO’s Cold War activities. The dawn of the 21st century offered greater challenges to NATO’s future, challenges that would require the same skills developed in the Balkans but in much more challenging circumstances. The 21st century began for NATO with 9/11 which for the first time resulted in the activation of the infamous clause 5-‘an attack on an ally is an attack on all’. The scale of NATO operations in Afghanistan has far outstripped previous operations, including those in the Balkans and it’s ‘out of area’ nature is part of the expanded remit and influenced the new strategic concept, accepted at Lisbon in 2010, which will define the focus of NATO over the next decade. 

David Cameron with British and US troops at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan. Photograph: Lefteris Pitarakis/PA Guardian
So what does the future looks like for NATO? Continual adaptation and modernisation are the order of the day. With the confirmation that the draw down in operations in Afghanistan will go ahead in 2014, attention will increasingly focus on what its post-Afghanistan role will look like. The evidence so far is that the emphasis will increasingly be on a comprehensive approach, whereby reconstruction and peace-building operations are carried out through close associations with other organisations, both non-governmental and inter-governmental.
The New Strategic Concept Report concluded that “NATO must reaffirm its core commitment to collective defence; protect against unconventional attacks from terrorists, weapons of mass destruction, cyber assaults, and the like; establish guidelines for operations outside Alliance borders; and create conditions for peace in Afghanistan through, among other things, a comprehensive civilian and military approach.”  NATO is moving in a new direction, with renewed confidence that it will continue to provide an effective tool of collective defence for the growing number of countries affiliated. In Washington on the 5th of January British Defence Secretary Hammond offered Libya, and the role NATO had played in protecting civilians, as an example of NATO's continuing crucial role in the modern world. He said “its flexibility, with an ability to quickly accommodate external partners for specific operations, makes it the most powerful alliance in the world and the most successful tool for collective defence ever invented”. 
This new global role requires NATO adapting to challenges and security threats far removed from the conventional war scenario it was originally designed to meet. The new strategic concept emphasises that NATO must respond to the risk of cyber-attacks and other non-conventional security threats, from anti –terrorism operations that are comprehensive in scope, to dealing not just with military action but cooperation with non-governmental organisations. Missile defence, military modernisation and the continued maintenance of Euro-Atlantic Stability remains the core of NATO’s purpose and yet it has shown that as an organisation it is willing to adapt to the vast array of security challenges its members faced. 
NATO has the capacity to reflect changing realities and evolving priorities in the 21st century-it has successfully transcended its Cold War routes and evolved significantly through its experience in Afghanistan. In proving its continued viability and usefulness, NATO has carved out a new role in the new world, something that two decades ago was far from assured.  Britain has reasserted her commitment to NATO; the Defence Spending Review of 2010 forecasted a military spending at 23%, over NATO’s minimum of 20%, and continues to make almost her entire force capacity available to NATO operations (the figure is around 95%). Withdrawal from Afghanistan is now imminent but it can be assumed that Britain, and NATO more broadly will continue to be a bulwark for the West against future security risks, whatever they may be. 

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