Leadership: The NATO Disease

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June 15, 2011: The retiring U.S. Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates is doing something unusual. He is openly questioning the ability of NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) to survive after its very mixed performance in Afghanistan and general unwillingness of members to pull their weight. Gates was also pointing out that the U.S. supplies 75 percent of the budget for NATO, and was constantly called on to do most of the fighting. In effect, too many NATO nations were joining to obtain protection provided by the American military, without making a contribution in proportion to the size of each members economy and population.

NATO was originally created to protect Western Europe from the very real threat of Soviet invasion. But that threat disappeared when the Soviet Union dissolved two decades ago. Now, NATO is supposed to help protect member nations from more distant threats. In this case, Islamic terrorism and unrest in nations that supply NATO states with oil. But what's the point of having NATO, or the United States being part of it, if each nation can choose the degree to which it will participate.

Gates was not the only one unhappy with these disparities. Five years ago, NATO commanders in Afghanistan were openly complaining about all the strings attached to their authority, by politicians back home. At that time, the ROE (Rules of Engagement) for NATO troops contained over seventy restrictions on how the NATO commanders could use troops assigned to them. Most of these have to do with where national contingents could be moved, and how much danger they could be exposed to. The NATO troops are good at what they do, but they could do more, and at less risk to themselves, if the NATO commanders had fewer strings attached to who can be used where and how. That would seem impossible, given that three dozen NATO nations had troops in Afghanistan. But it's only the major contributors of combat forces that NATO commanders are really worried about. By going public with complaints about the ROE problem, the NATO commanders were setting up the politicians back home to take the heat for any casualties in Afghanistan. It also put pressure on the politicians to ease up on the ROEs, which were created mainly to win political points back home.

The complaints five years ago led to some restrictions being lifted, but most remained. This led to some ludicrous situations. An Australian special operations soldier described a 2008 battle during which two Dutch AH-64 gunships refused to come to the aid of Australian, American and Afghan troops caught in an ambush. Some 2,000 Dutch troops have been in the area for years, and were criticized for not doing anything to crack down on the local drug gangs. The 2008 ambush took place in the Khaz Oruzgan district, and while it was going on, two Dutch AH-64 helicopters passed by, escorting a CH-47 transport helicopter. All three choppers were at about 5,000 meters (16,000 feet), an altitude considered safe from any ground fire. The Dutch troops, like most NATO forces (with the notable exception of U.S., British and Canadian troops) were generally restricted, by their governments, from getting involved in combat. But in this case, the troops on the ground were quite insistent that they could really use some help. The ambushed forces, after several hours of fighting, lost one dead (an American soldier) and nine wounded (including seven Australian commandos, one of whom won a Victoria Cross, the equivalent of a U.S. Medal of Honor, for bravery).

Accounts of exactly what the Dutch did, or didn't do, vary. The Australians insisted that the Dutch refused to drop below 5,000 meters, as their ROE (Rules of Engagement) prohibited this unless they had orders from their superiors to do so. Other accounts say the Dutch made two strafing runs with their 30mm cannon, and then refused to do any more. The Dutch were carrying Hellfire missiles in addition to their cannon. The Dutch said it was nothing more than a command screw-up.

The Dutch are particularly sensitive about incidents like this, because in 1995, a battalion of Dutch peacekeepers in Srebrenica (Bosnia) refused to intervene and halt the massacre of over 8,000 civilians. The Dutch battalion was guarding over 25,000 Bosnian refugees when Serbian gunmen showed up and cowed the Dutch troops into inaction. Survivors of the massacre later sued the UN and the Netherlands for failing to do their duty. The UN claims immunity for itself and its Dutch peacekeepers. In 2006, the Dutch government awarded medals to the Dutch soldiers who were at Srebrenica, for doing what they could under difficult circumstances.

The Dutch weren't the only ones suggesting that troops be given medals for not fighting. Last year European NATO commanders recommended that NATO establish a combat award recognizing soldiers who risk their own lives to avoid Afghan civilian casualties. This would be called the Courageous Restraint medal and the first few would probably be awarded posthumously, because the most obvious cases would involve NATO troops holding their fire when the enemy uses civilians as human shields. This enables the enemy to kill their better trained and equipped opponents. The best example of this occurred in 1993, when 24 Pakistani troops were killed by Somali gunmen using civilians as human shields. Those dead Pakistanis would be eligible for the Courageous Restraint medal. The only problem with this is that the troops are none too happy with this use of human shields, or getting killed because of it. American troops have permission to do whatever it takes, if American lives are endangered. Other NATO troops have similar escape clauses (but sometimes not as robust as the American one) in their ROEs.

What commanders were trying to do was inspire the troops to sacrifice their lives in order to avoid civilian casualties. But the troops can do the math, and realize that the bulk of civilian deaths are at the hands of the Taliban. That, however, is not news (in or out of Afghanistan). Any Afghan civilian dying at the hands of foreign troops is news. Most troops are not willing to die to help their boss avoid some unfavorable press.

Meanwhile, the traditional military awards for battlefield valor are still being earned for the usual reasons, to help one's fellow soldiers in a dangerous situation. This sometimes involves saving the lives of civilians, who are also being threatened by Taliban violence. But the NATO commanders were proposing the Courageous Restraint award for actions that go far beyond this, into territory troops are reluctant to travel. Since troops who win medals for valor, never think about winning a medal when they do what it takes to earn one, it's difficult to understand how a Courageous Restraint award will be anything but a propaganda ploy inflicted on the families of soldiers who die because of restrictive ROE that allow the Taliban to take shelter behind human shields, and continue to shoot at NATO troops. The courageous restraint medal idea did not last long, but the fact that it was even proposed put the spotlight on what a burden politically inspired ROE had become for the troops.

 


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