By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Feb. 10, 2008 - NATO and Afghanistan are now intertwined, and the experience holds many lessons for the alliance's near- and long-term strategy, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said here today. NATO's effort in Afghanistan shows not only how far the alliance has come from its original mission of confronting the Cold War era's Soviet threat, but also how far it has to go to become a force for the 21st century, the secretary said at the 44th Munich Conference on Security Policy.
"There is little doubt that the mission in Afghanistan is unprecedented," Gates said. "It is, in fact, NATO's first ground war, and it is dramatically different than anything NATO has done before. However, on a conceptual level, I believe it falls squarely within the traditional bounds of the alliance's core purpose: to defend the security interests and values of the trans-Atlantic community."
With the fall of the Soviet Union, Western planners tried to imagine what the threats of the future would look like, the secretary said. "Afghanistan was, in reality, becoming exactly what we were discussing in theory," he said.
The threats to the world have profoundly changed, Gates said, and Afghanistan demonstrates them all. Instability and conflict abroad do threaten people thousands of miles away. Terrorists and criminal take advantage of the latest technologies to spread their hate or sell their goods. Economic, social and humanitarian problems know no borders. Drug traffickers find common ground with terrorists increasing the resources available to extremists in the region, while increasing the drug flow to European streets. Safe havens, combined with a lack of development and governance, "allow Islamic extremists to turn a poisonous ideology into a global movement," Gates said.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, NATO nations set out to transform the alliance. Leaders decided NATO needed an expeditionary force capable of dealing with threats of this type – capable of helping other nations help themselves to avoid Afghanistan's fate.
"At the time, I imagine many were unsure of what, exactly, this would look like – what new structures, training, funding, mindsets, and manpower would be needed," Gates said. "Since then, however, we have applied our vision on the ground in Afghanistan."
Today, 43,250 troops from some 40 allies and partner nations serve under NATO command, thousands of miles from the alliance's geographic borders. Growing numbers of reconstruction and security training teams are making a difference in the lives of the Afghan people. NATO's offensive and counterinsurgency operations in the South have dislodged the Taliban from their strongholds and reduced their ability to launch large-scale or coordinated attacks.
"Due to NATO's efforts, ... Afghanistan has made substantial progress in health care, education, and the economy – bettering the lives of millions of its citizens," Gates said. "Through the Afghan mission, we have developed a much more sophisticated understanding of what capabilities we need as an alliance and what shortcomings must be addressed."
Since NATO's November 2006 summit in Riga, Latvia, Gates noted, there has been much focus on whether all allies are meeting their commitments and carrying their share of the burden.
"I have had a few things to say about that myself," he said. "In truth, virtually all allies are fulfilling the individual commitments they have made. The problem is that the alliance as a whole has not fulfilled its broader commitment from Riga to meet the force requirements of the commander in the field."
Gates said he wants the allies and associated nations to look at the requirements and try to find creative ways to fill them, and by doing so ensure all NATO countries contribute. "But we must not – we cannot – become a two-tiered alliance of those who are willing to fight and those who are not," he said. "Such a development, with all its implications for collective security, would effectively destroy the alliance."
NATO officials are working on a strategic vision document to assess the achievements the alliance and its partners have made in Afghanistan and produce a set of realistic goals and a roadmap to meet them over the next three to five years.
"We continue urgently to need a senior civilian – a European in my view – to coordinate all nonmilitary international assistance to the Afghan government and people," he said. "The lack of such coordination is seriously hampering our efforts to help the Afghans build a free and secure country. The really hard question the alliance faces is whether the whole of our effort is adding up to less than the sum of its parts, and, if that is the case, what we should do to reverse that equation."
The alliance must be willing to discard bureaucratic hurdles that have accumulated over the years and hinder progress in Afghanistan, Gates said.
"This means more willingness to think and act differently -- and quickly -- to pass initiatives such as the NATO Commander's Emergency Response Fund," he said. "This tool has proven itself elsewhere, but will, for NATO, require a more flexible approach to budgeting and funding."
NATO also needs a common set of training standards for everyone going to Afghanistan, he added, whether they are combat troops conducting counterinsurgency operations, civilians working in provincial reconstruction teams, or members of operational mentoring and liaison training teams.
"Unless we are all on the same page – unless our efforts are tied together and unified by similar tactics, training and goals – then the whole of our efforts will indeed be less than the sum of the parts," he said.
The secretary also said he's worried about a governmental theology "about a clear-cut division of labor between civilian and military matters – one that sometimes plays out in debates over the respective roles of the European Union and NATO, and even among the NATO allies." The argument echoes the same discussion in the United States that seeks to use all elements of national power against an enemy or ideology.
"For the United States, the lessons we have learned these past six years – and in many cases re-learned – have not been easy ones," Gates said. "We have stumbled along the way, and we are still learning. Now, in Iraq, we are applying a comprehensive strategy that emphasizes the security of the local population – those who will ultimately take control of their own security – and brings to bear in the same place and often at the same time civilian resources for economic and political development."
U.S. servicemembers have learned that war in the 21st century does not have stark divisions between civilian and military components, but a continuous scale that slides from combat operations to economic development, governance and reconstruction – frequently all at the same time, the secretary said.
"The alliance must put aside any theology that attempts clearly to divide civilian and military operations," he said. "It is unrealistic. We must live in the real world. As we noted as far back as 1991, in the real world, security has economic, political, and social dimensions, and vice versa.
"In the future, the EU and NATO will have to find ways to work together better, to share certain roles – neither excluding NATO from civilian-military operations nor barring the EU from purely military missions," he said. Gates added he fully agrees with comments yesterday by NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and French Defense Minister Herve Morin that NATO and the EU must have a complementary relationship.
"At the same time, in NATO, some allies ought not to have the luxury of opting only for stability and civilian operations, thus forcing other allies to bear a disproportionate share of the fighting and the dying," Gates said.
The last few years have seen a dramatic evolution in NATO's thinking and in its posture, Gates said. "With all the new capabilities we have forged in the heat of battle – and with new attitudes – we are seeing what it means to be expeditionary," he said. "We must now commit ourselves to institutionalize what we have learned and to complete our transformation."
Gates said the alliance must find the resolve to work together through a new set of challenges "so that, many years from now, our children and their children will look back on this period as a time when we recommitted ourselves to the common ideals that bind us together -- a time when we again faced a threat to peace and to our liberty squarely and courageously, a time when we again shed blood and helped war devastated people nourish the seeds of freedom and foster peaceful, productive societies."
"That mission drew us together in 1948 and keeps us together today," he said.