PREMIUM TAG BLOG: NATO at a Strategic Inflection Point

By Heinrich Brauss

NATO faces a turn of strategic eras. In 2014, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and the illegal annexation of Crimea fundamentally altered the security environment in Europe. The Kremlin demonstrated that it was prepared to use military force to change national borders in Europe and attain geopolitical objectives. Consequently, after twenty years of focusing on international crisis management, the Alliance has reinvigorated its primary core task of deterrence and defence. It has since been implementing a long-term programme to significantly strengthen its posture. Today, only seven years later, the transatlantic community is yet again at an inflection point: The rise of China to world-power status is the most significant strategic development of our time. It profoundly changes the global balance of power. 

China poses a systemic challenge to the Western democracies as a whole, cutting across the domains of security and economics. It will soon have the largest economy globally. It has the second largest defence budget worldwide. It is heavily investing in conventional and nuclear capabilities as well as new technologies. Its “One Belt, One Road” strategy attempts strategic power projection through economics. Its investments in communications, energy, and transport infrastructure in Europe pose a risk to NATO’s unity and security. Also, the Alliance now faces two authoritarian rivals – Russia and China.

At their 14 June Brussels meeting, NATO’s political leaders agreed the “NATO 2030 agenda” to make the Alliance ready for an era of great-power competition. It is designed to strengthen Allies’ political consultation to enable convergence of political and strategic views; promote full and speedy implementation of its deterrence and defence posture; further enhance resilience; foster technological cooperation among Allies to ensure NATO’s technological edge; increase cooperation with likeminded partners across the globe, including in the Asia-Pacific; and tackle the impact of climate change on security.

NATO leaders also asked Secretary General Stoltenberg to lead the development of the next Strategic Concept. The 2010 Strategic Concept is outdated. It reflects the aims and hopes of bygone times. The new Strategic Concept must cover the period from 2014 up to 2030 – from renewing NATO’s deterrence and defence to addressing global challenges to its security. It will have to build on the NATO 2030 agenda as the latest top-level guidance for NATO’s development. It will be negotiated and agreed by the North Atlantic Council. But it must not become another communiqué reflecting the lowest political denominator. 

Instead, it must become NATO’s supreme policy document guiding NATO’s adaptation to the emerging era of great power competition. It must combine the required broader political approach to global security issues with credible deterrence in the Euro-Atlantic area. It must be clear, consistent, and concise in defining NATO’s strategic purpose, core tasks, main fields of action and required forces and capabilities. To this end, it must:− Identify the central features of the evolving security environment in and around Europe and on a global scale, the key actors, challenges and threats relevant to NATO; − Confirm NATO’s three core tasks (collective defence, crisis management and cooperative security), but clearly prioritise deterrence and defence;− Integrate the principles, parameters and imperatives of NATO’s strengthened deterrence and defence acquis that has been established since 2014 – improving resilience, enhancing responsiveness, increasing readiness of Allied forces, enhancing forward military presence in the east, enabling rapid reinforcement, and reinvigorating nuclear deterrence;− Outline its policy for engaging China with a view to defending the Alliance’s security interests;− Delineate its approach to addressing both the implications of climate change and emerging and disruptive technologies relevant to NATO’s security;− Give guidance for further improving NATO’s posture in the Euro-Atlantic area, contingency planning for critical regions, and the required force posture;− Provide clear guidelines for developing Allies’ forces and capabilities required for the whole mission spectrum; and − Confirm Allies’ Defence Investment Pledge of 2014 and additional common funding up to 2030.  

The new Strategic Concept must also be the starting point for strategic burden sharing between America and Europe. The U.S. regards China as its primary strategic competitor. Itsstrategic focus is shifting to the Indo-Pacific. However, the growing Russo-Chinese cooperation causes the Western democracies to face the risk of two strategic challenges simultaneously – in the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific regions. Therefore, NATO’s primary effort must remain ensuring stability of the Euro-Atlantic region, so that the US has full reign in the Far East, and the European Allies must do much more for transatlantic security. They should develop a coherent set of forces and capabilities across all domains, including strategic enablers, capable of covering the whole military mission spectrum – from high-end manoeuvre warfare to peacekeeping. Such a European Joint Force within NATO should act together with the U.S. forces in Europe to reinforce deterrence in Europe, provide for crisis response missions in Europe’s neighbourhood and assist the U.S. in protecting freedom of navigation.

Freedom of Provocation?

“The high seas are open to all States, whether coastal or land-locked…These freedoms shall be exercised by all States with due regard for the interests of other States in their exercise of the freedom of the high seas, and also with due regard for the rights under this Convention with respect to activities in the Area”.
Article 87, United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea

The Lion and the Bear

June 30th, 2021.  Something High Victorian took place last week in the Black Sea.  The Old British Lion gave the Old Russian Bear a poke in the eye. Shortly after leaving the Ukrainian port of Odessa, and with Kiev’s permission, the British Type 45 destroyer HMS Defender exercised its right to freedom of navigation in waters off Crimea that Moscow now claims as Russian.  The two nuclear powers growled at each other, which was really the point, although just how many teeth were really involved, and to what extent they were bared, is disputed.  Moscow claimed that one of its aircraft dropped four bombs, albeit well in advance of HMS Defender, and that warning shots were fired by two patrol vessels.  Moscow also claimed that the Royal Navy had breached international law by entering Russian territorial waters, whilst faint hearts back in London warned of the danger of provoking Russia.  Given that virtually no state recognises Moscow’s claim to Ukrainian waters Russia seized illegally in 2014 the only possible law that comes to mind is the medieval law of conquest.  In other words, the very ‘law’ the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea seeks to banish. 

History also resonated.  On October 5th 1853, war broke out between Russia, on one side, and Britain, France, Turkey and, err, Sardinia on the other.  There were many complex causes of the Crimean War but for the British side the main imperative was the Machtpolitik of empire and the need to prevent Russia expanding its influence into the Black Sea Region and wider the Middle East as the Ottoman Empire declined.  The result was a bloody five year war, much of it fought in Crimea, and a lot if it fought incompetently.  During the October 1854 Battle of Balaclava the British Light Cavalry Brigade infamously charged up the wrong valley directly into massed Russian artillery.  The ghost of British incompetence past re-appeared this week when an unnamed British senior civil servant apparently left top secret ‘UK Eyes Only’ documents relating to the Defender incident at a Kent bus-stop. If true it’s enough to make one weep. At least Britain and France eventually won the Crimean War. 

Power and principle

For all the strategic theatrics last week Defender’s actions concern a fundamental principle of international law: the right to freely navigate international waters and to contest the claims of those who seize such waters by illegal means.  In that context, Defender’s actions should be seen as perhaps the first instance of the post G7 ‘community of democracies’ resisting egregious breaches of established international law by the Great Autocrats, China and Russia.  If that was indeed the intent then it was not exactly strengthened by the news that Berlin and Paris had sought to hold a summit with President Putin. The idea was quashed after several EU Member-States acted angrily to the proposal.  The Franco-German motor isn’t what it used to be? That said, in dealing with the Kremlin a Harmel-style mix of defence and dialogue is no bad thing.

The Black Sea incident could also prove to have been simply the first round of a coming strategic contest in which Beijing and Moscow use the British to send a message to the Americans. To ensure neither miscalculate the USS The Sullivans is also part of the force.  HMS Defender, along with the Dutch frigate HNLMS Evertsen had been despatched to the Black Sea from the new British Carrier Strike Group and its flagship the heavy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, which is now in the eastern Mediterranean. The Group is on a twenty-eight week mission to the Indian Ocean and the Far East during which port visits will be made to India, Japan, South Korea and with history again reverberating, Singapore.  The force will also exert its international navigation rights by sailing through the South China Sea which Beijing very dubiously claims as its own.  China will have watched the Defender incident very carefully and is no doubt preparing its own ‘welcome’.  The Carrier Strike Group can expect repeated Chinese attempts to penetrate the force’s air, surface, sub-surface and cyber defences.  

Nor is Moscow finished. Russia announced a snap live fire exercise off Syria during which the Kh-47M2 Kinzhalhypersonic anti-ship missile will be deployed for the first time beyond Russia’s borders on two Mig-31K (Foxhound) attack aircraft. According to Moscow they will “monitor the actions of the aircraft carrier group”.  The Kinzhal is capable of speeds of up to 12,350kph/7670mph and has a range of some 2000km/1250 miles. The Foxhounds will be supported by three Tu-22M3 Backfire strategic bombers currently deployed to the Khmeimim air base, close to the British led force.  

Cohesion and coercion

The real lesson of the Defender incident is that if Britain or any other European ally is to contest such waters with powers like Russia and China it is vital the NATO Alliance is four square behind them as part of a coherent strategy to exert (by definition) ‘legitimate’ coercion.  Yesterday, NATO Maritime Group 2 began a major exercise in the Black Sea which involves Ukraine, the US and several allies, including HMS Defender, along with 31 other allied and partner ships, 40 aircraft and some 5000 troops.  Exercise SEA BREEZE 21 is clearly designed to send a message to Moscow as well as test the Alliance’s deterrence and defence posture.  

Despatching HMS Defender on such a sensitive but important mission was an important reminder to Russia that its seizure of Crimea and its repeated incursions into the air and sea space of NATO allies will be contested.  In a sense, Defender was giving the Russians a taste of their own vodka-laced medicine and that fact that it was the White Ensign in the Black Sea will at least have given Moscow pause for thought.  This is important because during August and September Russia will conduct the huge Zapad military exercise and, contrary to Moscow’s claims to have stood down, much of the 100,000 strong force that threatened Ukraine in March and April has not been withdrawn.  

Freedom of provocation?

On April 23rd, 1937 in the midst of the Spanish Civil War three British freighters, the MacGregor, the Hamsterley and the Stanbrook tried to enter Bilbao carrying food supplies. To prevent their passage warning shots were fired by one of Franco’s Nationalist cruisers, the Almirante Cervera, which was operating together with the armed trawler Galerna.  British destroyers intervened but the two Spanish ships bravely pressed on until round the headland steamed the enormous British battlecruiser, HMS Hood. She trained her main 15 inch armament on the Almirante Cervera which rather sensibly stood down. The three freighters entered port safely.  The lesson?  If one is going to play gunboat diplomacy, which is what HMS Defender was doing last week, then make sure you have enough of the right gunboats in the right place. 

HMS Defender is a powerful warship and her officers and ratings conducted themselves entirely in keeping with the high traditions of the Royal Navy. Equally, Defender is just one ship and the only way to properly ensure international law prevails over Machtpolitik is if the democracies collectively demonstrate the will and the capability to enforce it. In the absence of both such freedom of navigation operations will come to be seen by the autocracies as little more than a bit of publicity-grabbing freedom of provocation.  International law is not an alternative to power but rather a constraint upon it.  Therefore, the only way to uphold such law in the face of those who would subvert it is to repeatedly and collectively enforce. Are their risks? Of course.  However, history would suggest the greater risk is to take no action at all. 

Julian Lindley-French

PREMIUM TAG BLOG – Think China: NATO’s Next Challenge

By Sten Rynning

The real difficulty will be to give strategic direction to NATO’s basic understanding of China. For now, NATO is “mainstreaming”—dealing with China without really naming it in the context of proxy issues such as resilience and partnership. 

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) will on June 14 address China for the second time at the level of heads of state and government. They did so for a first time in December 2019, taking note of “opportunities and challenges” associated with China’s rise but then punting the ball. Now, in June 2021, it is time for NATO to explain itself further.

This promises to be interesting.

What seems certain is that NATO will take new steps regarding resilience at home and partnerships abroad. Resilience concerns the protection of critical infrastructure and the functioning of government and society. In a day and age when, for instance, the EU imports a whopping 99% and the United States 80% of their rare earth minerals from China, it makes a lot of sense to address such a vulnerability head on. NATO has a resilience policy instigated by Russia’s hybrid war efforts, and now is the time to take it a step further.

Partnership equally seems a no-brainer. The United States is investing in the political resilience of the Indo-Pacific, most recently by bringing a new élan to the Quad of the United States, India, Japan, and Australia. Such US multilateral investment is what European allies have called for, and NATO already has “global partnerships” with countries in the Indo-Pacific. These were tailored to suit the stabilization effort in Afghanistan but should be adapted to suit a new era of great power competition.

All this will not be particularly easy. Resilience concerns the nooks and crannies of allied economies and societies and thus involves a great range of interests and sensibilities. Moreover, NATO only sets standards; each government delivers at its own pace. Enhanced partnerships require high-level meetings and commitment to common principles and actions, and this for the duration.

Still, the real difficulty will be to give strategic direction to NATO’s basic understanding of China. For now, NATO is “mainstreaming”—dealing with China without really naming it in the context of proxy issues such as resilience and partnership. But sooner rather than later NATO should tend to its political grasp of the overall situation.

The United States has for this reason proposed pulling all NATO-China initiatives under a common header: namely, China as a “systemic rival.” Yet, and though June 14 will tell, NATO does not seem politically ready for such a declaratory me. The question is how to advance underlying agreement.

“In view of the changes in the international situation … we need a better alliance system for consultation in crisis situations outside the Atlantic area,” and for this we need “political will” and “NATO machinery” adapted to the new tasks.

Such were the words of Constantijn L. Patijn who authored a report on “NATO in world affairs” attached to the 1967 Harmel Report. Back then, few were ready to entertain any such formalization of consultations on world affairs, but perhaps the time has come to invigorate some of the report’s ideas.

The need for NATO to devote more time, political resources and action to security challenges posed by China (and Russia) is well covered in the Reflection Group (NATO 2030) report issued in November 2020. Where Patijn’s decades-old report comes in is in terms of how to engender this change of mindset.

Patijn suggested the creation of “special groups” to carry forward active consultation (including on “the Chinese problem”) and then also strengthened NATO consultation between members’ missions to the United Nations. Both are worth contemplating today.

Special groups would, unlike policy mainstreaming, identify particularly sensitive issues in the NATO-China relationship and assign political responsibility to the most affected members to bring policy ideas to the collective attention. Closer coordination at the UN headquarters in New York would likewise pull Western political concerns with the solidity of the rules-based international order to the forefront of collective thinking and planning.

Perhaps such political advances are too much for NATO to handle in 2021, like in 1967. But the challenge of thinking China remains, and Patijn’s report at the very least stimulates thinking on what NATO can actually do to regain political initiative and direction.

The Alphen Group V-Conference: The Geopolitics of the Arctic, May 19th, 2021

The West must seek institutional solutions to conflict in the Arctic, but also raise the cost of illegitimate unilateral action”.

High North, Low Politics?

What should the West do about an insecure Arctic? The Arctic is where geopolitics, geo-economics and climate change meet with profound security implications for North Americans and Europeans.  The ‘settled’ sovereignty of the Arctic is increasingly contested by Russia which not only possesses more than 50% of landmass (and legitimate interests therein) surrounding the Arctic Sea, but is seeking to expand its jurisdiction from 370 kilometres (200 nautical miles) to 650 km.  Moscow’s strategic aim is to both expand Russia’s military footprint in the Arctic and to extend Russia’s ‘bastion’ defence far out into the Atlantic. If successful this would have profound implications for NATO defence and deterrence, and enable Moscow to control much of the $30 trillion in mineral riches believed to lie below the sea bed. Global warming could also open up a Northern Sea Passage that would shorten sea-lines of communication between East Asia and Europe by some 3000 km. It could also provide additional leverage for Russia and especially China over any collective, US led, effort against global warming.

The West’s response to such change has been slow.  Norway has worked for many years to increase NATO’s focus on the North Atlantic, including calling for a strengthened Allied presence in the Arctic to highlight the importance of the maritime dimension to transatlantic reinforcements during an emergency. However, most NATO members have little understanding of the Arctic or its strategic importance, whilst those that do have resisted NATO’s involvement. The five NATO Arctic States have traditionally seen the region as a locus for low politics rather than high politics.  For Denmark, the sovereign integrity of the Kingdom and its relationship with Greenland and the Faroe Islands has been a priority. For Canada, the status of its indigenous peoples was also deemed more important.  It had also been hoped that the Arctic Council would mitigate conflict and promote co-operation in the region, which to an extent it has.  However, the Arctic Council has no mandate to discuss military matters and Russia has withdrawn from fora that were established to promote peaceful mil-mil dialogue.  Although the US is now showing some interest in the region its response has also been slow with much of its effort is focused on Alaska, although the Biden administration plans to increase the number of military exercises and port calls in the European Arctic. 

A Frozen Conflict

In spite of the geopolitical competition evident in the Arctic it is still open to question whether sufficient unity of purpose exists between the Allies and partners. This lack of a coherent ‘we’ is further complicated by the US, Canada and Norway being members of NATO but not the EU, whilst Finland and Sweden are members of the EU but not NATO. Much will depend on the nature of Russia’s assertiveness, the extent to which China acts on its declaration that it is a ‘Near Arctic State’, and the degree to which Beijing and Moscow collaborate to exclude the West from the Arctic for geopolitical and geo-economic reasons. 

Game changer? Unlike in the past technology is now sufficiently advanced to enable such competition with two distinct world views now competing for influence over the Arctic – Western multilateralism against the Machtpolitik of Russia and China.  If the latter succeeds and, for example, the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) is eclipsed, a precedent would have been established with potentially profound consequences.  There are striking similarities between Russia’s behaviour in the Arctic and China’s behaviour in the South China Sea.  Climate Change is also acting as an accelerant for such competition.  

Speak softly but…

If the West is to engage to effect in a changing Arctic it will need first to collectively understand the scale and scope of the challenge it faces and then establish a hierarchy of interests which distinguish between the existential and the desired.  NATO?  It has become more engaged in the Arctic since 2014 and Russia’s seizure of Crimea, but now the Alliance must become far more involved.  At the very least the West must collectively seek to strengthen co-operation in non-military areas, but at the same time ensure the price for all and any unilateral military action in the region will be high. 

Julian Lindley-French

Twenty years on: Afghanistan and NATO

“The merit of all things lies in their difficulty”

Alexandre Dumas


Stefano Stefanini and Julian Lindley-French

‘You had the watches, we had the time’?

Ominously and tragically, May 8th’s ghastly massacre of schoolgirls at the Sayed Ul-Shuhada High School has nothing to do with ‘foreign troops’ and everything to do with the Taliban signalling their determination to roll back the social gains made by the Afghan population, especially women, in the last twenty years of foreign presence. Given the implications, whether or not the Taliban carried out the attack is scarcely relevant because it fits into a sadly all too familiar pattern of targeting civilians to terrorize them and undermine support for the Kabul government.  The attack also begs two critical questions. First, is Afghanistan’s future doomed to be a repeat of its violent and tragic past?  Second, will the future of Afghanistan also be the yardstick the future Alliance will be measured against?

The Taliban like to say that whilst the West had all the watches, i.e. the technology, they had the time.  All they had to do was wait and the US and its allies would lose strategic patience and leave Afghanistan.  The dust has still to settle on President Biden’s recent decision to withdraw from Afghanistan twenty years on 911 and the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington. Not surprisingly, the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan was unsurprisingly upheld at NATO’s April 14th “jumbo” Ministerial.  The Kommentariat have been predictable in their predictions of a now doomed Afghanistan and if such commentaries are to be believed the Taliban will soon have both the time and the watches to re-conquer Afghanistan. However, drawing up a balance sheet now on the Atlantic Alliance’s twenty-year long commitment to the Hindu Kush is premature. Therefore, assuming that the withdrawal of the Coalition takes place in reasonable good order and the Taliban resists the temptation to try and give it the appearance of a rout, the overarching question of what post-NATO Afghanistan will be like will remain unanswered for some time. That is a big ‘if’. Over the past week the Taliban launched several attacks on Afghan forces. 

More than 3,500 military and other personnel from thirty one countries paid the ultimate price and yet the Allied commitment to Afghanistan held, usually with parliamentary support and without any significant backlash from public opinion.  Indeed, the decision to withdraw has more to do with US policy than mission fatigue. Indeed, the European Allies were prepared to stay on in Afghanistan in support of the non-combat Resolute Support Mission (RSM). However, the Trump and Biden administrations both concluded it was time to terminate the counter-terrorism and stabilisation and reconstruction campaigns, in the face of contrarian advice from several military and intelligence agencies. President Biden made it clear that whilst he is aware of the military arguments against the withdrawal, he believes that there is an overwhelming political and geopolitical rationale in favour of doing so. With the US the reason for NATO being in Afghanistan in the first place, as well as the country that has borne a disproportionate burden in terms of blood and treasure, once Washington decided to quit it was natural the other Allies would follow.  

Four AFG questions

The decision to withdraw also raises four specific questions that also need to be tackled while remembering, and paying tribute to, the men and women who served in Afghanistan and recognising the remarkable solidarity shown by Allies and partners alike. [1] What did NATO achieve and what did it not achieve in Afghanistan?  Did the Taliban defeat NATO?  Why withdraw now and is there a wider strategic/geopolitical rationale behind Biden’s decision to leave Afghanistan?  If so, where does the implied new strategic ‘vision’ leave counterinsurgency (COIN) and counterterrorism (CT)?

What did NATO achieve and not achieve in Afghanistan?

Any such assessment immediately faces a profound difficulty because NATO never defined an end goal. At the ministerial the Allies were informed by Antony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, that the basic campaign goal of degrading and uprooting Al Qaeda and other terrorist organisations had been achieved. However, that important but relatively narrow goal, one which was originally set by President Obama in 2009, had always been part of a broader campaign design that included counterinsurgency operations, support for the democratically-elected Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIROA), nation and capacity-building, and promoting wider regional stability. Given the Alliance’s complex aims NATO’s scorecard should thus be broken down into three categories each of which has a very different level of achievement.  

Counter-terrorism: by helping to defeat and uproot terrorism in Afghanistan, both Al Qaeda and Daesh, and in partnership with the US Operation Enduring Freedom, NATO can claim ‘mission accomplished’, not least because the Taliban seem to have learned an important lesson and are for the moment committed to ensure Afghanistan never again becomes a terrorist safe haven. 

Counterinsurgency: NATO failed to defeat the Taliban insurgency or pacify Afghanistan, even at the peak of the so-called ‘surge’ between 2010 and 2011. In military terms, the best that can be said for the outcome is that it is a draw, although that assessment could change if Afghanistan descends quickly into renewed chaos.

Nation-building: with regard to building up resilient and enduring national Afghan institutions and a legitimate and effective GIROA the results are at best mixed.  The aim was to develop self-sustaining Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) (both Afghan National Army (ANA) and police), improve human rights, support civil society, promote women’s rights and education, as well as establish more effective governance and rule of law across the Pashtun, Hazara and Tadjik homelands beyond Kabul.  It is hardly surprising the results are mixed given the sheer complexity of the campaign, and the need to coordinate efforts with the UN, EU and a broad coalition of nations. Whilst the Alliance did much of the heavy-lifting and can be proud of its overall engagement, it failed to curb corruption and drugs trafficking. That will have consequences for the future stability of Afghanistan. Critically, the withdrawal will undoubtedly jeopardise much of the progress that has been made on human rights, the status of women in society, as well as basic freedoms.

In other words, whilst NATO achieved a great deal in Afghanistan the Alliance fell short of “winning”, even though history would suggest the very idea of ‘winning’ is not one foreign powers are advised to take with them into the Hindu Kush. Moreover, much of the good work that has been done could be quickly if the Taliban succeed in unconditionally returning to power and/or if the country falls back into warlord infused chaos and regional proxy wars at the behest of China, India, Iran, Pakistan and Russia. There must also be renewed uncertainty about the future role of Afghanistan as a possible haven for terrorist groups. Al Qaeda and Daesh have been dislodged, but they could still come back and again only time will tell. Lastly, even if terrorist groups fail to re-establish bases in a Taliban ruled or chaos prone Afghanistan people could well vote with their feet and flee across borders into neighbouring countries, aided by human traffickers. In such circumstances, existing refugee flows into Europe could easily again turn into a new migration surge. This would not only be destabilising for Afghanistan’s neighbours, most notably Pakistan, it would also reinforce immigration fatigue and fears in both America and Europe.   

Did the Taliban defeat NATO?

That will certainly be the Taliban narrative in the coming months, and one which the US and NATO should be keen to dispel.  Much will depend on the Alliance’s demonstrable ability to withdraw in full order, rather than what appears to be a hasty rout.  Indeed, the conditions under which NATO troops leave the country may help partially counter any perception that the Alliance “lost” in Afghanistan. Equally, nothing will change NATO’s bottom line which the Taliban and others will be only too keen to capitalise on: NATO was forced to withdraw, just as the Soviets were in 1989 and the British did so before them between 1947 and 1950. Consequently, NATO’s pending withdrawal will doubtless feed the long-held mantra that Afghanistan is the “graveyard of empires”.   

For NATO the beginning of the end began with the approach Trump administration adopted to negotiations with the Taliban. From the beginning of the talks Washington refused to the make the withdrawal “conditions based”, which at times made the negotiations look like a form of complex unconditional surrender, something the Taliban were only too keen to exploit. The Biden administration has already made some adjustments to both the timeline and the narrative, even briefly postponing the deadline for talks, but it has not changed the prevailing assumption in Washington that it is time for the Americans to get out. The Taliban has thus been able to maintain a cavalier attitude towards any proposed political process, both national and regional, because as far as they are concerned they have won. 

Only time will tell if they have and that the interests of the Taliban and the Pashtun are sufficiently aligned to enable the former to ride a withdrawal wave and take Kabul? Or, that Afghanistan is on the verge of another ghastly civil war similar to that which created the conditions for Al Qaeda and Daesh to exploit prior to 2001.  In the near term, the Alliance’s (and Washington’s) nightmare is a Kabul that turns into another Saigon 1975 as the last remaining Allied personnel are forced to make a panicked departure as the Taliban takes over. If, as seems quite likely, protracted territorial fracturing and infighting ensues in which no one ‘power’ emerges who can claim to control the country three dynamic factors will be at play: Kabul’s stronger conventional military capabilities versus the Taliban’s superior asymmetric tactics; continuing assistance from both the US and some Allies to the Kabul government in an effort to beef up its capabilities (after all, there is still the NATO-Afghanistan partnership); continued two track negotiating processes underway between the Taliban and Kabul, as well as with the other regional powers under the auspices of the Istanbul Conference.  Unfortunately, the signs are not good as the Taliban repeatedly threaten to desert the Istanbul meeting and show little interest in a national power sharing agreement that will be critical to any future peace. Posturing or hubris?

Why withdraw now and is there a wider strategic/geopolitical rationale behind Biden’s decision to leave Afghanistan?

The short answer to the second part of a complex composite question is “yes but…” President Biden when announcing the withdrawal said that there will be never a good moment for withdrawing so the US might as well do it now. Moreover, if Washington postpones the withdrawal, Biden argued, no matter for how short or long a time, the US will sooner or later face exactly against the same “this is not a good moment” accusation. In other words, Biden believes that beyond what has already been achieved, especially by the counterterrorism effort, the Afghanistan stalemate simply cannot be broken.  Interestingly, the US position differs markedly from that of the nineteenth century British who deliberately exploited such a stalemate to keep the Russians out at the time of the Great Game. China? 

However, there is a more pressing strategic imperative. First, for the Americans their Afghanistan effort has become disproportionate to the purpose it was meant to achieve, just when Washington must also confront the military rise of China and the resurgence of Russia.  Second, if the challenge of Great Powers and other state actors, such as Iran, is now the priority for the Americans the US can no longer afford to be ‘distracted’ by a resource and policy-draining seemingly interminable campaign in Afghanistan. Some in the Administration believe that whilst there is an undoubted risk of a Taliban take over the failure of GIROA, and eventually a new terrorist safe haven, Afghanistan would not be unique. There are already potential terrorist safe havens in Somalia, Mali, Nigeria and Yemen and they can be better dealt with by more tailored responses given progress in understanding such insurgencies and how to deal with them without the need for large-scale and extended expeditionary campaigning.

In other words, twenty years after 911 its influence on US policy whilst still evident has definitely waned.  In effect, Washington’s policy has gone full circle with the US having returned to a posture of leaving the fight against terrorism to a mix of targeted counterterrorism rather than extended expeditions allied to a willingness to live with failed States. Incidentally, such a shift in posture casts into history President Trump’s assertion that “NATO is obsolete because it doesn’t fight terrorism”.

Where does this new strategic “vision” leave counterinsurgency (COIN) and counterterrorism (CT)?

It is this question that is perhaps the most pressing for the Alliance. NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan fits somewhat neatly into an emerging Western world-view that international terrorism and its Salafist-fundamentalist roots whilst still there must now play second fiddle to a more traditional concept of geopolitics.  Or, to put it another way, the worry now is China, Daesh can be dealt with on an as and when basis. Consequently, the once dominant focus on COIN will now be side-lined (along with its myriad experts) whilst counterterrorism will only be carried out as a form of strategic background noise to a renewed emphasis on high-end warfare and its deterrence.  Mistake?

In adopting such a posture the US is undoubtedly taking a two-fold risk, and it is only to be hoped there is some calculation behind it. The first risk is Afghanistan itself. Washington believes that either Afghanistan will not return to Taliban absolutism and barbarism or that, once back in power, the Taliban will not again allow terrorist organisations to settle in or plan attacks against America. The second calculation is that the terrorist threat can be countered at a distance through proxies and allies. For NATO this implies an American vision for ‘burden sharing’ that will be more than simply an issue of financial cost, but also tasks, risks and responsibilities. Moreover, with the British following the Americans back onto to the military ‘uplands’ of high-end deterrence and defence that begs other questions. For example, will the Europeans really ‘take care’ of their North African backyard, as France is doing (to a point) in Mali and Italy should do in Libya? 

Twenty years after: Afghanistan and NATO 

Twenty years after 911 and NATO’s entry into Afghanistan the change in US threat assessment and priorities has one further and possibly enormous implication for NATO. If Afghanistan is no longer relevant, or significantly less so, would the Balkans also be less relevant in American thinking if conflict should again break out there in? What about other local and regional theatres that over the past three decades have been deemed sufficiently threatening to justify extended non-Article 5 operations? Plainly, there cannot be a one-size fits all approach to crises, as each crisis has its own very specific characteristics, constraints and thus rationale for intervention or non-intervention. However, the emerging US worldview that led to the decision to withdraw abruptly from Afghanistan will doubtless also lead NATO towards a renewed focus on its core business of high-end deterrence and defence at the expense of what Washington now deems as peripheral commitments. In the medium-long term will the withdrawal from Afghanistan constrain the Allied footprint in Kosovo and Iraq? 

President Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan is genuinely strategic because implicit therein is a fundamental American reassessment of the international security environment.  For NATO, the consequences cannot be over-stated for when Washington sneezes it is usually the Alliance that catches a cold and America’s change in thinking will doubtless be reflected in NATO’s upcoming strategic concept a year hence. Great powers and state actors are indeed again the main actors in the theatre of geopolitics, which perhaps begs the biggest questions of all: as Europe emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic will it be economically able and politically willing to follow the American shift back to the high end?  If not, what about the sea of instability to Europe’s south and the insurgencies and terrorism that continue to boil and fester therein? 

Afghanistan? To simply abandon Afghanistan because it is all too complicated and/or because the West simply did not have sufficient strategic patience will certainly return Afghanistan’s future to the pit of a violent past.  The Taliban need to be in no doubt that their dream of a status quo ante is simply not an option.  The question then becomes how? After all, the thing about watches is that they tell the time and only time will tell…

Stefano Stefanini and Julian Lindley-French

Ambassador (Ret.) Stefano Stefanini is a former Permanent Representative of Italy to the North Atlantic Council and Brussels Director of Project Associates. Professor Julian Lindley-French has just published Future War and the Defence of Europe for Oxford University Press. They are both members of The Alphen Group.

PREMIUM TAG BLOG: President Biden Needs a Strong, Supportive Europe. Now.

If done for the right reasons, a strong, independent Europe does not have to be seen in Washington as a challenge, but as a goal the US wants its partner to achieve.  

Spring has burst upon the scene in Washington, with not just the fabled Cherry Blossoms staging a show along the Tidal Basin, but dogwoods and azaleas too, reminding DC of its southern heritage.  

Spring has brought a new beginning in politics too, as the former Trump Administration has decamped for Mar-a-Lago and the Biden Administration has taken the reins of power.  

Sounding more like Franklin Roosevelt than any Democrat since the New Deal, President Biden has launched multi-trillion dollar domestic programs to deal not just with the pandemic and its economic impact, but to address urgent domestic issues that have languished for years but now must be addressed.

Racial injustice, access to health care, and climate change are just a few of the domestic issues he is focused on while he commands the House and Senate with slender margins that may last for only two years.  He is a man in a hurry.

Spring has come to the transatlantic relationship too after the gusts and snows of a four year winter.  

But many in Europe (and in Washington too) haven’t put away their winter coats yet.  The midterm elections in two years will give us an early look at the state of American politics and how that may manifest itself in the 2024 Presidential elections.  Is Trumpism a one-off accident of history or is it the Biden Administration’s return to normalcy that won’t stand the test of time?  One hundred days into the Biden Administration it is too early to tell who will win the contest of political resiliency, but Biden’s progressive domestic agenda will give the contest a real stress test as voters get a good taste of what big government costs and can provide. 

Certainly the warmer tones and friendly rhetoric about working with Allies heard coming from the White House (and from those parts of the Executive Branch that have managed to get appointees) is reassuring.  But can they be taken to the bank?  Should Allied governments hedge their bets that Democrats may lose in four years and winter will return?  And what are Biden Administration expectations for Allies and Partners in Europe? 

While the ham-fisted approach of the last four years is over for now, Europe still needs to address the bilateral complaint about burden-sharing.  European support for a robust US policy of challenging China’s rise is another test of transatlantic unity; the Biden Administration’s first bruising came at the hands of the EU even before inauguration day when the EU ignored the President elect’s request to hold off signing the EU’s financial investment agreement with China until there could be consultations.

Should European governments hedge their bets about where the US is going politically?  If hedging your bets means strengthening Europe’s ability to stand on its own two feet and lessen dependency on the US, then hedge away.  If hedging results in Europe becoming a strong partner for the US, enabling a partnership of equals, then that should be Europe’s goal anyway no matter the US trajectory.  

But if hedging means pulling away from the US and keeping the US at arms length, the more negative interpretation of “strategic autonomy”, then hedging is being used to undercut the transatlantic link to further political goals in some European capitals.

If done for the right reasons, a strong, independent Europe does not have to be seen in Washington as a challenge, but as a goal the US wants its partner to achieve.  In Europe, the drive to become stronger does not have to come at the expense of having a close relationship with the US or NATO.  But what has to be present is the political will in European capitals to spend the money and political capital to build that strength and to use it when necessary, and Washington has to be a help in that European endeavor and not a hinderance.  

Jim Townsend

The Alphen Group V-Conference: ”Future Tech, Future Battlespace “

April 26, 2021

The discussion started from the proposition that the Alliance was at serious risk of being technically outcompeted by potential adversaries. And disturbing differences in capabilities between allies called its future coherence into question. Some remained obstinately analogue, through available budgets and political choices. Others, especially, the US, were increasingly preoccupied with expensive and demanding digitally enabled technologies such as cyber, AI, exquisite Fifth-Generation platforms, and precision weapons, driven by the prospect of confrontation with an unprecedentedly capable China. Without significant and widespread innovation and modernisation, the Alliance could historically be judged to be maintaining analogue pre-dreadnought capabilities while hostile rivals were researching and designing digital Dreadnoughts. We could therefore well be leaving ourselves open, through complacency and economic short-sightedness, to devastating Future Shock. At the very least, leading Allied nations had to continue technical competition for national and overall Western credibility. But the familiar but increasingly complex dilemma was reconciling expensive technical sophistication while retaining sufficient mass of forces.

And the alternative perspective could not be ignored: technology was not in itself militarily decisive, as World War II, Vietnam-and now, Afghanistan-had shown. Competitive advantages were constantly copied, eroded, or evaded by low-tech solutions, often simply by moving into rough, forested or urban terrain and digging in. Intense protracted conventional combat would remain a serious possibility, requiring determined boots on the ground prepared for grinding close combat against “rustic” enemies with AK-47s and no heavy weapons. The latest Ukrainian border crisis had been a stark reminder of the permanent relevance of threateningly deployable conventional hard power. To counter that, Allied numbers would continue to matter, and the possibility of strategic surprise could never be eliminated, even by perfect surveillance, as in chess. While technology certainly provided force multipliers, if remaining units and personnel numbers were hollowed out to become “a two-horse circus”, the diminished resultant force structure would be predictably fragile in any sustained high intensity conflict. (This is a criticism already levelled at the U.K.’s 2021 Integrated Review with its significant reductions in manpower alongside a proudly declared shift towards high-tech platforms and capabilities.) There was a general risk of doctrinal capture by “technological millenarians”, or “asymmetrical dreamers” whose seductive, industrially promoted, promises could turn NATO into a collection of clever, casualty averse, “pussycats”.

How was the dilemma to be managed? NATO had evolved a common War Fighting Capstone Concept but no effective shared methodology for guiding and coordinating investment choices. There could be no one single optimum trade-off between numbers and capabilities in every field. There was already an observable drift towards the Westphalianisation of force structures. The list of strategic tasks continued to expand, against a shrinking roster of nations able to undertake them alone. Interoperability was becoming harder to maintain, and future technological coherence might be as important, and difficult, as political cohesion.

Solutions and mitigating factors therefore urgently needed to be better understood. It was possible that the US technical lead had been exaggerated in some areas and that the larger European countries were already themselves planning to invest to fill gaps revealed from open sources. And capability imbalances could also be minimised by alliance planning, and partners with whatever level of capability should be found useful roles. Poorer and less technically capable Allies could, for example, take on responsibilities for combating the new threat mix of disinformation, corruption, and funding of proxies, so damagingly evident in Ukraine. This could be part of an overdue collective effort to cope with the future “battlespace” rather than simply the battlefield. Most of the vocabulary and capability for the new threat picture might not be military at all.

But there was a minimum essential, technically demanding, and expensive, military list. Every ally needed to maintain forces with appropriate readiness, professional competence, and situational awareness, contributing to and relying on a Common Operating Picture, and providing appropriate inputs for intelligence fusion. (Effectiveness here could depend upon national geopolitical position, experience and awareness as much as sophisticated remote sensors: dock police in Baltic harbours might, for example, detect indicators missed by satellites.) Assured communications formed a vital part of the list: secure tactical frequency-hopping radios were essential for advanced command and control. Logistical compatibility, cyber security and host nation protection of critical transport infrastructure were all also indispensable components.

In major individual procurement decisions, it would be vital to minimise vulnerabilities from single point dependence upon suppliers and production facilities, or from restricted ranges of sensor or positioning systems. More fundamentally, the Alliance should try to enhance its underlying rate of technical innovation: partly by better liaison with universities, working round anti-military academic institutions, and through better liaison between US/NATO and the EU, which would be playing a greater role in defence relevant R&D. But the real bottlenecks would probably lie in available funding rather than brainpower.

Diplomacy and arms control options would also remain possibilities to mitigate technical threats and surprises and limit competitive expenditures. It would be politically advantageous to pursue them and strategically desirable to succeed, but increasingly difficult to expect reliable negotiated outcomes in intangible realms such as cyber or AI. 

Overall, Alliance management of the demands and divisive affordability of new technologies was an ineluctable, decades-old problem. Judgements about it would inevitably differ. But there were genuine reasons to fear it had taken on greater urgency. Technology itself was accelerating, multiplied by the potential of machine learning, and adversaries revealed they were responding. Gaps and solutions would need to be repeatedly reanalysed and incrementally addressed at the national and Alliance level. There would be no simple, lasting or cheap solutions. But this challenge was too fundamental to allow vulnerabilities to grow through complacency or inattention.

Paul Schulte

April 2021


TAGGER Paul Cornish has written a powerful piece on the failings of the recent UK Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy.  Entitled   Incoherent, Under Strength, Over Stretched: The UK National Strategy and Defence Review 2021 it is forthright report that does not pull its punches. 




The future of war and defence in Europe

By John R. Allen, Frederick Ben Hodges and Julian Lindley-French

March 23, 2021

We face a critical challenge: unless Europeans do far more for their own defence, Americans will be unable to defend them; but there can be no credible future defence of Europe without America!

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the shift of power from West to East, revealing a host of vulnerabilities in Europe’s defences and making major war in Europe again a possibility. The lessons of history? From D-Day to the creation and development of NATO, the importance of sufficient and legitimate military power has been at the heart of credible defence and deterrence, whilst shared innovation and technology have been critical to maintaining the unity of effort and purpose vital to upholding Europe’s freedoms.

However, Europeans now face a digital Dreadnought moment when strategy, capability, and technology could combine to create a decisive breakthrough in the technology and character of warfare—and not in Europe’s favour. The future of peace in Europe could well depend on the ability of Europeans and Americans to mount a credible defence and deterrence across a mosaic of hybrid war, cyber war, and hyper war. To remain credible, deterrence must thus reach across the conventional, digital, and nuclear spectrums. If not, Europe will remain vulnerable to digital decapitation and the imposed use of disruptive technologies.

The threat

Critically, if the defence of Europe is to remain sound, both Europeans and their North American allies must squarely and honestly face the twin threat of hostile geopolitics and disruptive technologies, and they must do so together and with shared purpose:

  • Russia: Russian economic weakness and political instability allied to the overbearing cost of the Russian security state and its development of new weapons poses the greatest danger to European defence.
  • Middle East and North Africa: state versus anti-state Salafist Jihadism and the impact of COVID-19 are exacerbating deep social and political instability across the region. The Syrian war has also enabled Russia to further weaken Europe’s already limited influence therein, with transatlantic cohesion further undermined by conflict over what to do with Iran and its nuclear programme.
  • China: the rise of China is the biggest single geopolitical change factor; Europe’s nightmare is China and Russia working in tandem to weaken the US ability to assure Europe’s defence. US forces are stretched thin the world over and could render European defence incapable at a time and place of Beijing and Moscow’s choosing. The Belt and Road Initiative and the indebtedness of many European states to China is exacerbating both European weakness and transatlantic divisions.

The dilemma

“Could Europe alone defend Europe? No, and not for a long time to come.”

Can NATO defend Europe? Only if the Alliance is transformed; for if it fails, any ensuing war could rapidly descend into a war unlike any other. Europe must understand that if America is to provide the reinsurance for European defence, it is Europe who must provide the insurance. NATO is thus in the insurance business. It is also an essentially European institution that can only fulfil its defensive mission if Europe gives the Alliance the means and tools to maintain a minimum but credible deterrent.

Could Europe alone defend Europe? No, and not for a long time to come. Given post-COVID-19 economic pressures, the only way a truly European defence could be realized would be via an integrated EU-led European defence and a radical European strategic public–private sector partnership formed to properly harness the civ-tech revolution across Artificial Intelligence (AI), super-computing, hypersonic, and other technologies entering the battlespace. Can Europeans defence-innovate? They will need to.

The future

Europe must quit the comforting analogue of past US dependency and help create a digital and AI-enabled defence built on a new, more equitable, and more flexible transatlantic super-partnership. A super-partnership that is fashioned on the anvil of an information-led digital future defence against the stuff of future warfare: disinformation, destabilisation, disruption, deception, and destruction. A partnership which at its defence-strategic core has a new European future force able to operate to effect across air, sea, land, cyber, space, information, and knowledge.

The future of European defence is not just a military endeavour. COVID-19 has changed profoundly the challenge of defending Europe. It has also changed the assumptions upon which the transatlantic relationship has rested since 1945 and changed the relationship between the civil and military sectors—and even between peace and war. Therefore, Europe’s future defence will depend on a new dual-track strategy: the constant pursuit of dialogue between allies and adversaries together with a minimum but critical level of advanced military capability and capacity. Only a radical strategic public-private sector partnership that leverages emerging and disruptive technologies across the mega-trends of defence-strategic change will the democracies be able to defend themselves.

If not, then as Plato once reportedly said, “Only the dead have seen the end of war.”

John R. Allen, President, Brookings Institution, Frederick Ben Hodges, Pershing Chair in Strategic Studies, Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), and Julian Lindley-French, Senior Fellow, Institute for Statecraft.

John R. Allen is President of the Brookings Institution. He was previously Commander of the NATO International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces in Afghanistan from 2011 to 2013, and is the recipient of numerous US and foreign awards.

Frederick Ben Hodges holds the Pershing Chair in Strategic Studies at the Center for European Policy Analysis. He was previously Commander of the United States Army Europe from 2014 to 2017.

Julian Lindley-French is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Statecraft. He is also founder and chair of The Alphen Group, a high-level strategic ‘do-tank’. His publications and high-level reports combine policy experience and academic expertise, and include A Chronology of European Security and Defence (OUP, 2008) and The Oxford Handbook of War (edited with Y Boyer, OUP, 2014).

PREMIUM TAG BLOG: Surveillance and Control

By Holger Mey

History has shown that surveillance is an important tool for states to deal with, and to contain, pandemics like the plague, cholera, etc. and now the Corona Virus Disease 2019 (COVID-19).  Surveillance, tracking, control – all those measures have always been, and are still being, used by states no matter what their political and social system is.  Totalitarian regimes, dictatorships, autocracies, but also democracies – they all apply in one way or another, and to various degrees, surveillance technologies and control mechanisms. 

From neighborhood control to the persecution of minorities…  History is full of examples where totalitarian regimes manage to gather data on their citizens and control their behavior – even without biometric data analytics and artificial intelligence.  Today, the means to literally control each and everybody at all times and everywhere are impressive and/or frightening, depending on one’s perspective.

All those technologies, procedures, and measures are a means to an end.  In democracies, both ‘end’ and ‘means’ rightfully need to be put into question by the people and need to be justified by the government.  Hence, one cannot make it simple by claiming “The end justifies the means!”.  Society needs to agree on the ends and on the appropriateness of the particular means.  Beyond any doubt, there are means that are clearly not justifiable in democratic societies, no matter how understandable and legitimate the respective objectives might seem.  

Surveillance technologies are being used by states, for instance, to control whether citizens observe social rules and comply with laws and regulations.  Law enforcement is important since the violation of rules without negative consequences undermines the law awareness of citizens and, therefore, the peaceful and respectful living together in a society.  The alternative to law and order is anarchy, the rule of thumb, and the question of who can pull the colt faster or can afford to pay for bodyguards and gated communities.  Those educated and well-mannered individuals who do not need written rules and control because they behave responsibly and respectfully anyway shouldn’t assume that others do the same.  Does anyone seriously believe that people will obey speed limits without radar control?  Even if the majority did (which I doubt), there will be many who do not and put their own and, more importantly, other people’s life at risk.  On the other hand, aren’t there perhaps too many, and often incomprehensible and even absurd, rules?

Surveillance and control have been abused by states over and over again in history.  One could even argue that states, in a way, have been the biggest threat to human beings.  Historically, it can be shown that states have killed, or are responsible for the death of, more people (in wars, concentration camps, etc.) than any crime organization or tribe.  Hence, a certain or even fundamental skepticism vis-à-vis the state is appropriate, justified, legitimate, and understandable.

The problem is that many intellectual critics of state control fail to differentiate between democracies and totalitarian states.  They rightly refer to the mere possibility of the abuse of, and unchecked, power but, at the same time, they put Western democracies into the same box as countries like North Korea or China.  While the means appear to be similar, the ends are different, for sure. 

If it is about controlling certain values and rules, the key questions are: (1) What actually are the rules that are being controlled? And (2) who controls the controllers? 

The first issue relates to values and the question of who determines the rules.  Are we talking about the rules of the Communist Party of China imposing their ideas of what determines “good behavior” upon their people or is it about the rules of a free, liberal, democratic, constitutionally-founded, division of power accepting state where all rules are based on law and can be challenged and disapproved by independent judges? 

The second question is about institutionalized checks and balances that control those in power and their agencies and allow citizens to question in court any governmental act and official decision.  We need a political system that assures modern surveillance technologies and the potential to control each and everybody and everything will not be abused.

Those who are rightfully concerned about this in principle should not, as has been mentioned above, mix up democracies and totalitarian regimes.  Simply criticizing the means, and trying to stonewall technological developments, will lead nowhere.  Surveillance and control will remain a fact of life and ever more so.  But criticizing guns as a means to kill people rather than differentiating between the gun in the hand of the criminal and the gun in the hand of the police officer is missing the point.  A key challenge for our democracies is to make sure the personality/psychological selection in the police recruiting process is extremely tough, that the police force is very well educated, trained, and equipped, well paid and thoroughly controlled.

Future challenges, be it pandemics, organized crime, artificial intelligence, etc. require both to have the best and the brightest people working for our governments and our societies, i.e. technocrats and experts, and, at the same time, democratic institutions and procedures that enable the control of those who control us.