NATO is theoretically a military alliance, but the Europeans would prefer not to do anything that involves the military. A number of states have contributed troops to Afghanistan, but countries like Germany station their forces in areas where they hope there will be no fighting. Moreover, most governments restrict the use of their troops, sharply reducing the military value of NATO’s “contributions.”
The outgoing NATO SACEUR, or supreme allied commander Europe, would gladly forgo more NATO troops to fight Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan if allied countries dropped their caveats against their use in combat operations. Gen. John Craddock, the outgoing supremo, says these caveats “increase the risk to every service member deployed in Afghanistan and bring increased risk to mission success.” They are also “a detriment to effective command and control, unity of effort and … command.”
NATO’s International Security Assistance Force consists of 58,300 troops from 41 countries. But NATO’s 28 member nations provide the core of the force. Most of them labor under operational restrictions, known as caveats, on combat imposed by their governments or parliaments. U.S. soldiers joke that ISAF stands for “I Saw Americans Fight.”
In addition to American troops that have no combat caveats, British, Canadian and Dutch are the only national contingents under NATO command that are not handcuffed.
During the Cold War even the Europeans could agree that containing the Soviet Union was an important goal. There’s no similar consensus on conflicts at the periphery of Europe, let alone outside the continent. Which means Washington will never be able to count on the kind of practical assistance which it desires. The alliance will remain one in name only, in which Washington does all the heavy lifting while most everyone else helps “supervise.”
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