Politics & Policy

Going It Alone

Why NATO is of little use in Iraq.

During the recent election campaign, there was one area of bipartisan agreement: that the U.S. can and should share with other countries the military burden in Iraq. That consensus–that the U.S. has allies willing to help and that it can fall back on NATO for support–is wrong. Iraq will remain an overwhelmingly U.S. mission for years to come.

#ad#Bush and Kerry both played a game of one-upmanship as to who could rally the most foreign support for operations in Iraq. Bush claimed that there is a strong, successful, multinational Coalition in Iraq. Kerry ridiculed the Coalition as “window dressing” but promised that, if he were in the White House, there would be no lack of foreigners scurrying to assist him.

In the teeth of the evidence, the administration claims that NATO, which President Bush has called “the most successful alliance in history,” is substantially engaged in Iraq. Outgoing Secretary of State Colin Powell points out that 16 of NATO’s 26 members (including the U.S.) have forces in Iraq. Plans announced on September 22, 2004, called for NATO instructors to train Iraqi officers, with the number increased from 60 to 300 at the NATO summit on December 10, 2004.

Yet that training scheme is already in trouble. Six NATO members (Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Luxembourg, and Spain) have refused to allow their officers to participate even though they voted for the Iraq training program. Even when operational, the NATO academy in Baghdad will at best produce just 1,000 officers per annum–too few for a country struggling with an insurgency tens of thousands strong.

The record of the U.S.’s NATO allies in Iraq is already mixed. While many non-U.S. Coalition forces have made important and genuine contributions, some have also shown substantial weaknesses. The British-led division around Basra has done well, reflecting Britain’s years of experience with low-intensity warfare, policing, and peacekeeping. Yet British troops, the best suited to the mission of stabilizing Iraq, have also been handed an easier job than U.S. forces–they control the four least troublesome Iraqi Arab provinces.

Elsewhere in Iraq, the non-U.S. contribution has been shrinking rather than growing. The Polish-led division has found south-central Iraq, containing the Shia holy cities, difficult to control. While the Poles have been competent, other contingents have shown less ability. The Ukrainians left Kut at the first sight of Moqtada Al-Sadr’s militia in April. The Spanish contingent scuttled out with little regard for Coalition security in May. U.S. Marines had to take command of two previously Polish-controlled provinces, Najaf and Qadisiya, in August during fighting with Moqtada’s militia. Poland will now withdraw entirely by the end of 2005.

Senator Kerry also indulged in wishful thinking about a potential foreign contribution, suggesting that allies were simply waiting for him to become president so that they could ship their troops out to Iraq. Kerry’s mistake was to overestimate potential foreign support, to believe that with a dash of the right diplomacy American allies would step forward. The sorry history of the alliance’s mission in Afghanistan, however, indicates that the U.S. allies are not so much unwilling as unable to help.

The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan was supposed to demonstrate NATO’s ability to operate outside of its traditional European theatre. Letting non-U.S. members of NATO command and man ISAF was their opportunity to contribute to the war against terrorism.

Instead, NATO has failed to deliver on its promises. Non-U.S. NATO, with over two million troops, has scraped together just 8,500 soldiers for duties in and around Kabul. NATO’s October 2003 pledge to expand ISAF’s role outside of Kabul remains largely unfulfilled.

Many NATO countries will not commit forces to missions in the Afghan countryside. Those willing to do so, such as Italy, lack the capability to back up their troops if they ever go into the field. Speaking of his attempts to drum up more men and equipment for Afghanistan during the June 2004 NATO summit, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said, “I have felt like a beggar sometimes.”

The unimpressive track record of most of the U.S.’s NATO allies is not encouraging for Americans wishing to share the burden of the Iraq venture. The U.S. cannot, in all seriousness, rely on foreign troops, or foreign trainers, to secure victory in Iraq. In the meantime, as more U.S. troops leave for Iraq, Americans are entitled to be disappointed. For decades, U.S. allies in NATO knew that if there were ever a conflict with the Soviet Union, then the U.S. would come to their rescue. Yet now the U.S. needs the assistance, Americans have discovered that there is no NATO cavalry waiting over the horizon to relieve U.S. forces.

Andrew Apostolou is director of research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on Iraq and terrorism. He has spoken at the U.S. Army War College on European security.

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