After the official end of combat operations in Afghanistan, what are NATO’s priority tasks?

By Dr Ian Davis
At a flag-lowering ceremony in Kabul on 28 December NATO marked the end of it’s combat role in Afghanistan, where it has been operating since 2003 leading the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). With the end of the ISAF mission, the Afghan army and police were left fully in charge of security despite the country still being gripped by insurgent violence.
More than 3,400 NATO troops have died and more than 30,000 have been wounded in the 13-year war. However, it is civilians that continue to bear the main brunt of the conflict with more than 3,180 civilians killed and nearly 6,430 injured in the first 11 months of 2014 alone.
Although the combat mission has officially ended, a new non-combat mission has taken its place. The Resolute Support Mission was agreed at the NATO Chicago Summit in 2012, but was only given the green light in December following the signing of two much delayed security agreements: the US-Afghanistan Bilateral Security Agreement and NATO-Afghanistan Status of Forces Agreement.
At their peak NATO forces in Afghanistan numbered nearly 140,000, but have already shrunk to around 13,000 troops. For the new mission, Washington has pledged nearly 10,000 troops—mainly trainers and advisers—along with a contingent of anti-terrorism forces. NATO allies and 14 partner nations are expected to contribute about 2,000 more advisers.
The size of the Afghan armed forces and police (now numbering some 350,000) and the funding they will need—an estimated US$4.1 billion per annum—remain issues of contention. The Afghan army remains fragile and the police force lacks sufficient weapons to fight the well-equipped Taliban. Moreover, a peace process started in 2010 was expected to enable the Afghan forces to be scaled back from 2015, but attempts at reconciliation have faltered and fighting has intensified again. It is an open question therefore as to whether NATO’s new mission will remain ‘non-combat’. Various possible contingencies will no doubt be kept under review at NATO HQ depending on how things evolve in Afghanistan.
Of course, the Alliance has always done more than one thing at once and in general terms NATO’s tasks going forward are clear: collective defence of the Alliance; being prepared for crisis management out of area (which can cover a multitude of different possibilities) and building and adapting partnerships. The Alliance is not going to step back from any of these tasks. So what does this mean in practice?
In addition to a transformed role in Afghanistan, NATO has also undergone a recent change in leadership. Jens Stoltenberg, Norway’s former prime minister became the new chief of the Alliance when Anders Fogh Rasmussen stepped down in September last year. He is the first NATO secretary general from a country bordering Russia and faces a number of major challenges.
The most immediate task facing NATO’s new chief is the on-going crisis in Ukraine, which partly reflects a disagreement over NATO’s expansion into what Russia regards as its ‘near abroad’.  The previous secretary general, although initially a strong advocate of the ‘reset’, later adopted a more hawkish response to the burgeoning confrontation with Russia in line with the temperature in Washington; in return NATO was earmarked as the main foreign military danger in Moscow’s December 2014 military doctrine. In reality, however, Russian military doctrines have always contained a negative tone towards NATO.  Thus, when the Alliance seeks to mend relations with Moscow—as it surely must at some point (the alternative is to put the relationship into the deep freezer indefinitely)—Stoltenberg may be an invaluable voice for reconciliation. In 2010, for example, he negotiated a deal with Russia that ended a four-decade Russia-Norwegian dispute over their Arctic maritime borders.
The decision of Ukraine’s parliament to revoke its non-aligned status in December and declare an interest in NATO membership further complicates matters and Russia has demanded reassurances that Ukraine will not join the Alliance. Regardless of the final outcome of the conflict in Ukraine, a lasting consequence will be a reinforced NATO military presence along Russia’s border and closer cooperation between NATO and non-NATO countries such as Finland and Sweden. At the most recent NATO summit in Wales in September last year, a new deterrence strategy for the Alliance was agreed that includes the creation of a NATO ‘Spearhead Force’ of several thousand troops able to respond within a few days to any attack or security threat. This rapid reaction force (which achieved an interim operational capability this month) and other measures, such as more military exercises, are designed to reassure the easternmost NATO countries of the Alliance’s commitment to their security.
In Wales NATO also acknowledged the growing importance of partnerships and the need to create further or enhanced mechanisms for partnership with other relevant international organisations. This area of NATO policy is relatively underdeveloped and it remains an evolving question as to what NATO partnerships are for. They were partly to ease the transition before joining NATO, but clearly they are not that any more. They were partly to create options for joint military operations and to this end they contributed to NATO operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Is that still the main purpose? Are partnerships limited to military security issues, or should they be wider, perhaps embracing the concept of humanitarian partnerships? If wider, how wide and how does that fit with other security-related efforts being undertaken in different frameworks? For example, how could humanitarian partnerships combine with possible counter-terrorist or crisis management operations?
NATO partnerships currently include relations with Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, and 19 other countries within the Partnership for Peace framework. Ten countries in the Middle East participate in the Mediterranean Dialogue and the Istanbul Cooperative Initiative, and there are at least eight other individual ‘partners across the globe’. NATO is also committed to a fresh impetus in its engagement in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Partnerships are with governments, but governments in some key MENA countries are not fit partners, either because they suddenly disappear without warning or because their publics reject them. Thus, making NATO’s policy of partnership appear reliable to the Arab street will be a particularly challenging task.
Connections between Special Forces, secret intelligence, and new forms of power projection (such as unmanned drone strikes and cyber attacks) will be increasingly discussed in NATO circles. Partly a response to new threats, as well as the on-going ‘war on terror’, debates on the accountability, legality, and effectiveness of these technologies are likely to be controversial and challenging – especially in the context of countering  ‘new’ forms of so-called  ‘hybrid warfare’.
The Paris attacks have further fuelled the discussion on new jihadist threats and possible counterterrorism measures in Europe. This debate is likely to lead to a broader review of transatlantic security and the role of NATO in combating jihadi terrorism. It seems unlikely, however, that there will be consensus within the Alliance for this to become a NATO operation under its own initiative post Libya. At best NATO will be a forum for discussing and exchanging views on counter-terrorism, continue to provide support to Turkey under Article 5 and possibly give support to a future decision of the UN Security Council on this issue.
Again, Stoltenberg may bring a more measured approach to counterterrorism issues within NATO, as he did in the aftermath of the terror attacks in Norway in 2011. At the memorial service to commemorate the victims of the atrocity, he pledged to respond with “more democracy, more openness, and more humanity”. Efforts to reach out and dissuade the thousands of alienated young men and women who may be receptive to the messages from Islamist extremists is one of the new tasks of the NATO Strategic Communications (StratCom) Centre of Excellence, which opened in Riga last year: the first NATO hub dedicated to information warfare.
The main task of StratCom, however, is to improve the quality of NATO public diplomacy inside the Alliance. In other words, explain better what NATO does (and does not) do. It is mainly linked to two issues discussed further below—burden sharing and transparency—and a sense that the Alliance has lost contact with the public, who only ever hear about NATO in bad news stories and calls for more public spending on defence.
One of the longest running fault lines within NATO has been the burden sharing debate, with accusations that Europe spends too little on defence and is being protected at American taxpayer expense. At the Wales NATO summit the Alliance leaders committed to increase defence spending to two percent of annual economic output within 10 years. But is the US-European ‘capabilities gap’ a result of European NATO countries spending too little or the United States spending too much? Despite cuts in the armed forces of many of its member nations, NATO remains by far the largest military force in the world.
An area that remains largely off the political agenda is how to update NATO into a more open, transparent, and accountable Alliance, appropriate to 21st-century expectations. Decision-making within NATO remains largely the exclusive preserve of the executive branch of government and an array of inter-governmental bureaucracies. The Alliance still does not have an information disclosure policy, while mechanisms for parliamentary oversight within NATO are weak.
To improve transparency and accountability, national member parliaments need to sharpen their scrutiny of NATO affairs. The democratic mandate of the NATO parliamentary assembly also needs to be strengthened and NATO should adopt an information openness policy consistent with the access to information laws already in place in the Alliance’s 28 member countries.
A key narrative within NATO for at least two decades has been: should the Alliance focus on collective defence in the immediate transatlantic region, or would reaching out to global partners enhance transatlantic security?  In fact, it is trying to do both – and much more besides.