NATO’s Post ISAF Challenges and the Danger of a Hollow Alliance: Interview with Dr. Andrew A. Michta
Andrew A. Michta is the M.W. Distinguished Buckman Professor of International Studies at Rhodes College and a Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) in Washington, DC.
SWJ: You just came from Afghanistan. What did you see there? What is your sense in terms of the NATO mission: is it a moderate success? Are you a skeptic? How do you assess Afghanistan after the surge?
Andrew A. Michta: I was part of a Transatlantic Opinion Leaders to Afghanistan Program organized by NATO which reunited a team of 7 people, essentially think-tankers who work either on security issues related to Afghanistan or NATO. We went first to Kabul for briefings at ISAF on the political dynamics, training and operations. From Kabul we went to Helmand, then travelled to Sangin and other locations. We were briefed by ISAF military and political leadership on how the timeline of the operation is progressing, and we also met with Afghan political leaders and media. I came back with very mixed feelings.
One key impression is that the military piece, probably for the first time since we started the campaign, is beginning to fall into place. And that the Afghan National Army is probably going to be as good as it is today. What I have observed watching them train is that there are limits to how much those soldiers can learn, because we are dealing with illiteracy levels that are at about 70%. So training these soldiers, even in basic skills, requires perseverance. But on balance, I saw positives changes. Still, when the Afghan military leadership starts talking about developing more sophisticated capabilities, I become skeptical. The ANA has become more effective, but they were suffering a lot of casualties, very high at the peak of this fighting season. Too often they still tend to default to the ISAF leadership, and only after they learn that these guys are not going to be in the lead will they realize that they have to figure this out, come together, and find solutions.
The political piece is very different, and here I am pessimistic for one reason. President Karzai has failed to lead in a way that would knit together and consolidate a larger Afghan national identity. This is a society that is still predominantly ethnic and tribal in nature. The key task should have been to get the people to feel connected to the Afghan state. The average person needs to feel that the policies of the central government have benefited them, and that the state is something worth defending. I came back from Afghanistan with the feeling that there are two cultures there living side by side: one the people like those that we met in government institutions, at the ministries, etc. - these are the Westernized Afghans, the administrative side. They are educated and articulate, saying things are accustomed to hearing. But then there is the other side: a whole segment of society that is a different culture, not connected to that first group. The big problem is the weakness of the Karzai government where it apparently is not able to fund more than 10% or 20% of the state budget. Some estimates show that 20-25% of all the GDP comes from narcotics and the rest from outside aid.
And so the question is what will happen after 2014 if funding sources shrink significantly? Let’s assume that NATO stays on to do Operation Resolute Support. If Western money is cut, then the Afghan National Security Forces and the state itself will begin to contract very quickly. In 2014 and beyond the real test will be the extent to which Afghanistan will have enough resources for the central government to function. If it doesn’t, you are likely to see a similar pattern to when the Soviets left, which was the contraction of state authority, defaulting to the cities, and de facto conceding the countryside.
So providing continued Western assistance will be essential after 2014. Over the years we have built the infrastructure of the state and the military and the police that are dependent on outside help. The minute the money starts drying up those who serve in the army and the police will have few options. Most likely they are going to take their weapons and equipment and simply walk. But not everything is that clear cut. One of the variables that may aid the government is the uncertainty and fear of what would happen if the Taliban return. Unlike in the past, the people know what Taliban rule means. Before, there was no experience related to what their rule would actually be. Now the people know.
SWJ: Which are in your opinion the lessons that states like Poland are extracting from an expeditionary stability/COIN campaign like the one in which NATO was involved over the past decade? I sense in Central Europe a pivoting away, like the US did after Vietnam when it returned to the big-war paradigm, from the ISAF type of missions to the basics of regional/territorial defense.
Andrew A. Michta: The experience of both Iraq and Afghanistan has been transformative for Central European armed forces. The two missions proved to be the most effective paths to military modernization. They gave them invaluable operational experience. Those contingents were deployed under difficult conditions and conducted combat operations in close cooperation with other allies. If you consider the number of personnel from Central Europe who rotated through those missions that is the real core of those armies today. And there is a political capital associated with the missions. Central Europeans look at their ISAF participation as an act of Allied solidarity. Like others in NATO they will absorb their own lessons from ISAF and tap into the NATO-wide experience. Post-2014 NATO allies from Central Europe, like the Alliance as a whole, will need to recapitalize their armed forces, to get back to some of the core basic competencies and functions, but the experience from the field will stay as a positive. With the resurgence of Russia and the changing security situation in the region, Central Europeans want to revisit the basics of national territorial defense and the core Article 5 functions. But the global demands on NATO post-Afghanistan are only going to grow. The question is how to balance the regional and global security optics. In this context, regionalism should not undermine the larger sense of Allied solidarity. If for example the Poles, Balts or Romanians focus predominantly on the regional paradigm in the East, there is a risk that others will look elsewhere. The key is to make sure that NATO retains a strong sense of mutuality, so that in the event of a crisis no one could say “no, this your responsibility, your area.”
SWJ: Are we heading to a two tiered Alliance, one focused on niche case by case expeditionary operations (UK and France) and one more interested in focusing on territorial defense issues (like Poland and the Baltic states)? What is the danger here?
Andrew A. Michta: When I was working in Poland, I heard a lot of this kind of discussion, and heard similar concerns when I would travel to other parts of Central Europe. There are two larger issues here. One is a de facto disarming of the European part of NATO. Nine years ago, the Europeans provided about 50% of all the capabilities of the Alliance, now they maybe provide around 30%. If you look at what is happening to budgets across Europe, it is not just a question of being able to work with the Americans in some expeditionary missions. In some cases European allies are reaching a point where it will be difficult for them to work with each other. Without investment in military capabilities NATO risks becoming a talking shop, progressively losing the ability to deter and defend. This must not happen, and so governments need to have the necessary political will to spend on defense.
Another thing that is beginning to happen is a greater articulation of regional security optics. The French have turned to MENA and Africa, the Central Europeans are preoccupied with Russia. These are real concerns and need to be addressed by the Alliance. Look at the problem of state collapse in MENA that is likely to accelerate this year. Security along the periphery of Central Europe is also changing. Russia has committed about 700 billion dollars to military modernization over the next 10 years. Let’s say that 30% of that will be mismanaged, misspent. Still, if you are taking these numbers for Russian military modernization in the context of declining budgets in Western Europe, the balance of power in Central Europe is shifting already. Overall, it is a major inflection point in the context of the Nordic/Baltic/Central European power equation. It is bound to re-awaken historical dilemmas thought a mere decade ago to have disappeared with the demise of the Soviet empire.
The 2013 collapse of Ukraine’s association agreement negotiations with the EU is tantamount to the shift of Ukraine ever more strongly back into Russia’s orbit. This on top of the end of any meaningful prospects for Ukraine’s NATO membership in 2008 shows that Moscow’s pressure is growing. This shift has been ongoing since Putin came to power with the goal of rebuilding Russia’s influence in the post-Soviet sphere. This change in Eastern Europe requires a response from the West, but unfortunately because of the ongoing economic crisis and preoccupation elsewhere that response has been muted.
We need to take a very serious look at what the consequences will be for the Alliance of these two trends: the cuts in defense spending and the renationalization of regional perspectives. If we cannot reach a consensus on how to respond to these problems, NATO may emerge from its post ISAF experience weaker. There is a danger for NATO that it may become a hollowed out Alliance, politically active but less and less militarily capable. So it is my hope that after ISAF, the Alliance will focus on how to generate resources for defense, how to reassure the allies along the periphery, and finally how to keep NATO relevant for the challenges that are emerging in Asia and elsewhere.
This brings me to the final but most important point here, namely the centrality of U.S.-European relations going forward. The United States’ presence in Europe is declining, with approximately 30 thousand personnel to remain, possibly lower.
The United States is not as connected to Europe as it used to be. Some analysts advocate a complete withdrawal by the U.S. from Europe, moving EUCOM back to the U.S., and so forth. This is a crucial moment for NATO—we have not had the requisite serious conversation across the Atlantic about why we need to continue to work together. I hope the upcoming 2014 NATO summit in the U.K. will become such an opportunity to think in global strategic terms. The United States and Europe have a vested interest in preserving and sustaining the current open liberal order. This is a system that the Western community has built collectively, and it has benefited us all. If we cannot figure out the big piece of a common strategy going forward, we will see increased fragmentation, including in NATO.
SWJ: How should the US handle its hard security presence in Europe? Is it a measure of numbers or of capabilities in order to send the right message of trust, confidence and strategic reassurance that the frontier states need to receive?
Andrew A. Michta: The numbers are shrinking. I don’t think considering what the US budget situation is these days that you can assume these trends will be reversed any time soon. The current budget reality is going to be with us for a while. We can deal with that. But what’s missing in my view is a political piece of the conversation we need to have across the Atlantic, especially with Central Europe. Quite frankly, I don’t think that the Obama Administration has paid enough attention to Central Europe in terms of visible political engagement or giving reassurance to the publics in the region that the U.S. is serious about its commitments. Senior level visits from Secretary of defense or Secretary Kerry’s visit in early November were very important. Secretary Hagel should also visit the region, should go there and deliver a very similar positive message. Without that, with the rapidly shifting security environment in the region as Ukraine pulls away, Central Europe sees reduced American presence on the ground as disconcerting. For Europe as a whole, the Obama Administration’s pivot to Asia has sent a similar message: that the United States is looking elsewhere. There is a sense of the drift of American power out of Europe, and this is felt most acutely in Central Europe and the Baltic region. Because those countries still have a very recent memory of foreign occupation, they are particularly keen to ensure continued U.S. engagement and are committed to keeping NATO strong. At the same time, there is a generational change underway in Central Europe, so that the region that was arguably the most pro-U.S. only a decade ago has seen public attitudes begin to shift, with the younger generation increasingly saying: why should we count on the US? Especially because being in the EU gives the younger people a sense of belonging. Being in the EU is a 24/7 experience, it frames much of how you live, travel, work, etc. What the Obama Administration doesn’t seem to appreciate is that the EU experience is already shaping the next generation in Central Europe; that the U.S. needs to compensate for that with more credible political engagement. We haven’t had the best track record there. We need more political engagement, but we also need to keep in mind that political engagement in and of itself is not going to compensate for the military piece. The military piece needs to continue. What I would like to see is greater U.S. participation in exercises like Steadfast Jazz and the ones that will follow. The U.S. air training facility in Lask in Poland should really grow into a major hub for NATO training. It will be important for the Central Europeans if Lask is going to grow into something really substantial. We need more of this type of concrete U.S. presence, concrete U.S. exercises. That military piece ultimately does more than the best political conversations do.
SWJ: After the Russian-Georgian war, NATO’s frontier states like Poland developed a deep confidence and trust deficit relative to the reliability of NATO’s security guarantees. Are we past that moment? Are we better off today? Over the last few years we’ve seen tangible progress in this sense: defense contingency plans for the Eastern Flank, NATO’s first live article 5 exercise on the territory of these frontier states.
Andrew A. Michta: Nobody can undo what happened in 2008 in Georgia. In 2008, both the Bucharest NATO Summit and the Russian-Georgian war provided a kind of shock to the system that in my view, regrettably, ended the enlargement of NATO for now. We didn’t have enough gasoline to push this through in 2008 and we are paying the price now. This is especially important when it comes to Ukraine. Until then and within the prevailing paradigm of asymmetric threats and the war on terror, the prevailing consensus was that traditional state-on-state conflict was no longer on Europe’s menu. I was always of the opinion that it was a mistaken view, that geopolitics was alive and well in Europe and elsewhere. And in 2008 we saw state-on-state war on Europe’s periphery; something that pundits claimed somehow belonged to another era. The effects of the Russian-Georgian war were particularly felt in Central Europe, because to those countries the experience of being occupied and dominated is still a fresh one. I always insist that if you want to understand what is going on in Central Europe in terms of their security optics, the experience of past Russian domination still has to be factored in as the starting point. If we want to work with the countries of Central Europe we need to stipulate that experience, and take it seriously. Please recall the debates around NATO’s New Strategic Concept, and the pressure from Central Europe and the Baltic States for concrete steps to reassure them. Here we should recognize the importance of the Obama administration’s decision to move forward on contingency planning for the region. That is something that was very important for the United States to deliver to keep NATO credible. Without those plans the whole New Strategic Concept wouldn’t have been much more than another verbal exercise on paper. We should continue to work to strengthen NATO’s role in the region. The key for the Central Europeans is the depth of the U.S. commitment and NATO’s ability to respond, especially in a crisis situation. They are doing what they can to enhance their military capabilities—look at Poland’s military modernization, for example—but they are operating from the position of very limited alternatives. Simply put: the European Union is not an alternative when it comes to hard security for the region. And it is unlikely to provide anything substantial in that regard in the near future. So the United States presence remains as important to the region today as it was in the past, and as Russia’s power surges, it will become essential. But there is also a certain sober realization in Central Europe as to the new limits of the U.S. presence in Europe in general. The reason why we have heard Poland’s President Bronislaw Komorowski talk about the need to invest in traditional territorial defense capabilities reflects that more sober attitude. There is a realization that if you want to have assistance from the outside you have to have the core capacity yourself. And things are definitely getting worse to the East of the Bug River, in Belarus and Ukraine, with Putin’s Russia determined to reconsolidate its influence in the post-Soviet sphere. For example, the political situation in Georgia created conditions after the last elections whereby the rapid consolidation of Russian influence is more likely than ever. The same goes for Ukraine after its government abandoned the EU association agreement and moved closer to Russia. What we see today with Ukraine shifting to the East is a re-emerging frontier, a new fault-line of sorts that, if allowed to consolidate, will affect not just Central Europe and the Baltic States, but the security of Europe as a whole. Here NATO is paying the price for its mistakes in 2008. Until the Bucharest Summit and until the Russian-Georgian war, I had a sense that the momentum was with the West, that the enlargement of NATO and then of the European Union was fundamentally changing the geopolitical map through enlargement of Western security structures and democratic institutions. However, in 2008 the Russians managed with a small military campaign to effectively stop this process. Since then the back-pressure has been building, and we are learning that countries like Romania, the Baltic States and Poland are going to be the area where that pressure will be felt first. The overall security in the region has deteriorated. I am not predicting an all-out war, far from it. But it is more likely today that a regional crisis could degenerate into something serious, especially in the Baltic States, which are more exposed today than before 2008.
SWJ: How should we read and interpret Poland’s interest in building its own anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) bubble?
Andrew A. Michta: One part is very simple: Poland is finally getting serious about its military modernization because it still has a lot of Soviet-era equipment to replace. The air-missile defense is the biggest piece of this modernization effort today. Poland has to put systems in place that would give the country the defense capability it needs. But the larger question is a strategic one, about their strategic thinking beyond that. I would argue that across the Nordic/Baltic/Central European region you are beginning to see a movement towards thinking in deterrent terms. Look for example at some of the hardware purchase decisions that, say, Finland has made. Deterrence is coming more and more into the conversation. And that includes having the capabilities to make it credible. I would argue that in Poland you might be seeing the emergence of something similar to how the Finns have been thinking about deterrence: having the ability to send a clear message to any potential aggressor that the country will be very tough to take on. To me the strategic piece here is in addition to defense capabilities having deterrent capabilities as well, that if the conditions in the region deteriorate they will have the ability to respond and I think we will see more of this not just in Central Europe, but also in Scandinavia, as Russia continues to modernize its military. Arguably the biggest variable in this changing environment for Scandinavia, the Baltic States and Central Europe, especially Poland, is the Kaliningrad district. If Russia were to deploy Iskanders in the Kaliningrad District—and there have been several reports that Russia is considering this, such a decision followed by the further militarization of Kaliningrad would be a game changer for the whole region. In short, Poland is trying to make up for past delays in terms of military modernization, move the country’s arsenal away from legacy post-Soviet systems to modern equipment, but also to be proactive in how they approach defense, including thinking about deterrence. And they are working with other countries in the region, including their cooperation with Germany. NATO remains the most important part of Polish security strategy, but if NATO weakens in the future, there will be a very strong incentive not only for Poland but for all the Central Europeans, as well as the Scandinavians and the Balts to work closely at the regional level.
SWJ: What is the importance of the US missile defense deployed in Poland and Romania from a Central European perspective? Is it more of a strategic statement, a tripwire? Is it about the US providing strategic reassurance to exposed allies? What would be the effect of the cancellation of the project?
Andrew A. Michta: There has always been an important political dimension to missile defense. You may recall the reactions when the original proposal by the George W. Bush administration was scrapped and replaced by EPAA. The same goes for when the Obama administration decided to eliminate EPAA Phase IV-at each turn there was a keen sense that every time the U.S. makes a decision on missile defense it has a political impact. And so if the project were cancelled altogether at some point, that would have a clear negative impact on how the United States is seen in the region, beyond the system itself. That is why the Obama administration’s reaffirmation of its commitment to the project is important, and has been received as reassurance.
SWJ: What should the next NATO summit do in order to rebuild this capital of collective deterrence and solidarity, to rebuild those key ingredients that NATO used to have during the Cold War? Back then the Alliance provided reliable solidarity, security guarantees, strategic reassurance but some of these public goods are in question.
Andrew A. Michta: I would say first of all stop talking about Afghanistan, as some analysts have done, as some sort of grand test for the Alliance. I think the alliance did well militarily and ISAF carries good positive lessons of the longest and most integrated and sustained operation we engaged in as NATO. But the politics of Afghanistan are such that the outcome may be less than what we hoped for. There may be serious political setbacks there. So if we make Afghanistan into this grand test of the Alliance at all levels, then we risk becoming hostage to the political game President Karzai and others are playing in that country. I do not want to tie the conversation of the next NATO’s summit only to Afghanistan. We should talk of course about the lessons we have learned, and if Operation Resolute Support goes forward, about the commitments each ally will be making, about the training and support we will provide, etc. But we need to look beyond Afghanistan to future challenges.
I would like to see the 2014 summit as one about reaffirming allied solidarity. The ISAF campaign experience is a solid foundation to build on. Here there are several issues I would like to see on the agenda: first, how to resource defense, or to put it differently, a serious conversation about how to reverse the downward trend in defense budgets, and how to use our money smarter. This is important, as the end of ISAF will remove the residual sense of urgency the governments felt, as they needed to provide funding for their operations in Afghanistan. So for some countries now there will be even less of an incentive to spend on defense as the mission winds down. That would be counterproductive, as Europe needs to reinvest in its military. I believe that’s the key issue for the United States, which simply cannot be expected to continue to provide two-thirds of NATO’s capabilities, as it struggles with its own budget deficits and mounting debt. Just recall what happened during sequestration, and the hard choices the Pentagon still has to make. Then, of course, we need to talk about Russia, and how NATO needs to respond to the resurgence of Russian geostrategic assertiveness along its periphery. This is not just a problem for the Nordic/Baltic/Central European region—this is an issue that demands a response from NATO as a whole. We need to reach a consensus on NATO’s relations with Russia going forward, on the political piece of this relationship, and also on the training and the exercises that we need for the next two years. Missile defense should also be on the agenda, for the political salience of the issue I have already mentioned. So should partnerships, which will only grow in importance going forward. And last but not least, I would like to see enlargement return as a serious topic of conversation. NATO’s conditional but open door approach has been essential to its post-Cold War success. In Chicago in 2012 enlargement was not on the agenda in any meaningful way. We need to return to it, and make it an important part of the upcoming summit. And finally, NATO needs to acknowledge that it will have to be present in Asia in some form, because with the rise of China that’s where the greatest power shift is occurring.
The central problem for the Alliance going forward will be how to frame and navigate a common security agenda, what capabilities we need to put in place and how to prepare for new challenges. Nations live in neighborhoods, so to say, and that regional perspective, to a large extent, determines how you see security. So I perfectly understand why the Europeans want to focus on defense closer to home. But they also need to recognize that the United States as a global power has a much broader security optic, that its “neighborhood” so to say is global. And so “European vs. global” is not an either/or proposition. The nature of the threats we face has already eclipsed that argument. If we tried to differentiate these two perspectives, we would strain and potentially damage the core principle of allied solidarity; we would weaken the alliance. NATO’s strength going forward will ultimately depend on the strength of transatlantic relations, of understanding that both the United States and Europe have a vital interest in preserving and defending the open international order we built that has served all of us so well. NATO has been an essential part of that process for 65 years. It needs to continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Like it or not, NATO has been thrust ever more strongly into a global security role, and we need to decide how we will perform that role, as an alliance and in partnership with others.