NATO’s Military Committee holds its first post-Afghanistan meeting, but will lessons be learnt behind closed doors?

20 September 2021

NATO’s 30 Chiefs of Defence (CHODs) met in Athens, Greece, from 17 to 19 September for their third Military Committee* meeting of 2021. (For details of the January 2021 meeting see here; and the May 2021 meeting see here). Admiral Rob Bauer, Chair of the Military Committee, presided over the closed sessions (see his opening remarks).

According to a press statement by Admiral Bauer, the CHODs discussed “the breadth of the security challenges facing the Alliance”, including “the evolution of NATO-led operations, missions and activities; the increased use of non-traditional definitions of conflict, especially information warfare; the rise of non-state actors and their access to technologies normally limited to state entities; how future conflict will be persistent, simultaneous and boundless; and how the threshold between peace and war is increasingly blurred”.

The first session of the day (earmarked for only 45 minutes in the agenda) focused on NATO operations, missions and activities. On the situation in Afghanistan, Bauer said that the “the dramatic developments of recent weeks and months are tragic for Afghanistan and its people” and that “there are many lessons to be learnt”. He added that “the alliance will conduct an honest, clear-eyed assessment of our engagement, looking at what worked, and what did not”.

Throughout  the nearly two decades of NATO’s presence in Afghanistan, many of the military and intelligence assessments on progress in the country were deliberately misleading or hid inconvenient facts about ongoing failures inside confidential channels. Will this “honest and clear-eyed assessment” also reveal the extent to which NATO officials and the Military Committee contributed to these misleading assessments? What will NATO do to improve the transparency of operational metrics for future missions? How might parliamentary oversight of NATO decision-making be improved in NATO member states? These are all important questions that ought to be front and centre in any lessons learnt process. However, how can the public have faith in a process in which the exact terms of reference, timeline and structure remain secret. A livestreamed independently-led inquiry, including questions on camera to senior NATO military officials about the Afghanistan mission would provide much needed transparency and accountability, but seems very unlikely to happen. 

According to a media report, the US military were looking for the meeting to assist in forging more basing, intelligence sharing and other agreements to prevent terrorist groups from regrouping, especially in Afghanistan. The Pentagon has said it can conduct counterterrorism surveillance and, if necessary, strikes in Afghanistan from “over the horizon”—meaning from assets based in the Persian Gulf—but they are seeking basing agreements, overflight rights and increased intelligence-sharing with nations closer to Afghanistan. It is unclear whether the meeting discussed the efficacy and legality of over horizon warfare generally or the specific US drone strike on 29 August in Afghanistan that killed 10 civilians – including seven children – and not an Islamic State extremist as first claimed by the Pentagon.

Greece's defence minister, Nikolaos Panagiotopoulos warned of an Afghan migration crisis at Europe’s borders. More generally, Athens is concerned about a possible repeat of the 2015 refugee crisis, and has begun to employ surveillance technology and other measures to fortify its borders.

As for NATO’s remaining missions, the CHODs affirmed that the NATO-led Kosovo Force mission “will take the measures necessary to keep a safe and secure environment in Kosovo at all times, in line with its UN mandate” and that “they remain fully committed to stability and security in the Western Balkans”. In their discussion of NATO’s Mission in Iraq, the Military Committee stressed the presence of NATO in Iraq remained “conditions-based”, and that any increase in troop numbers would be incremental and based on requirements and consent from the Iraqi authorities.

The Military Committee’s second session (1 hour 45 minutes) focused on strategic military adaptation. Briefings were provided by NATO’s Strategic Commanders, General Tod Wolters, Supreme Allied Headquarters Commander Europe (SACEUR) and General André Lanata, Supreme Allied Commander Transformation (SACT) on the concept of Deterrence and Defence of the Euro-Atlantic area (DDA) and NATO’s Warfighting Capstone Concept (which “has a 20-year horizon warfighting perspective”).

The details of both concept documents remain classified. Bauer indicated that the DDA “is a threat informed and 360 degrees approach” that is now being “operationalised into plans for peacetime, times of crisis and times of conflict”, including via the “revision of the Alliance’s Graduated Response Plans and the development of Regional Plans”. Military conceptual decision-making remains one of the opaquest processes within NATO. It needs to become more open and visible, with the reasons for outcomes clearly outlined. This would enable greater accountability of the military decision-making within civilian parliaments of member states.

In a third session (30 minutes) on ‘peacetime challenges’, the Military Committee discussed the changing nature of warfare and how the NATO needed to keep pace with the speed of technological change. Given the limited amount of time dedicated to this issue there could not have been any substantive discussion. However, Bauer’s statement lists a number of points that were apparently aired in that session: “NATO’s relationship with Russia is at its lowest point since the Cold War; Moscow’s aggressive actions are a threat to our security; China’s rise is fundamentally shifting the balance of power, which has potential consequences for our security, our prosperity and our way of life; Globally, we are seeing new and more brutal forms of terrorism; Every day we see an increase in the threats in cyber space; and Artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and big data are changing the nature of conflict”.

The NATO 2030 agenda was the focus of the fourth session (1 hour 45 minutes), which also explored how the CHODs would provide military advice for the next NATO Strategic Concept. Admiral Bauer’s press statement remained tight-lipped on this issue.

In a final session the CHODs elected Lieutenant General Janusz Adamczak from Poland as the next Director General of the International Military Staff—made up of approximately 500 military and civilian staff who provide strategic and military advice and staff support to the Military Committee. Adamczak will take office in the summer of 2022 for a three-year term.

* The Military Committee meets twice a year at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, at the level of Chiefs of Defence, to provide the North Atlantic Council with consensus-based military advice on how the alliance can best meet global security challenges. Once a year they meet in a member state. On a day-to-day basis, their work is carried out by the permanent Military Representatives at NATO headquarters in Brussels.