NATO's lessons learnt from the Balkans - applicable to Iraq ?

Posted in NATO , Iraq , Broader Middle East , Asia | 22-Sep-03 | Author: Klaus Naumann

General (ret) Klaus Naumann:
Former Chairman of NATOs Military Committee during the Kosovo War 1999 and Chief of Staff Federal Armed Forces of Germany, is a Member of the International Advisory Board of Worldsecuritynetwork.com
Which lessons did NATO learn in the Balkans and are these lessons applicable to Iraq ?

In answering the question I will first discuss the similarities and discrepancies.
  1. NATO intervened in Bosnia in 1995 based on a series of UN mandates and it deployed peacekeeping forces to Bosnia in 1996 based on the consent of all conflict parties, the Dayton Framework Agreement and a UNSCR. NATO’s actions in Bosnia were therefore legitimate as well as legal.

    In Kosovo in 1999 NATO acted without a UN mandate but based on the unanimous agreement of all its nineteen member states.
    After the military defeat of Serbia / Montenegro a NATO led stabilization force was deployed in accordance with a UNSCR. NATO’s action could be called legitimate but possibly not entirely legal.

    The US did the right thing in Iraq when they removed Saddam Hussein from power but with regard to international law the American action will remain questionable.
    It was clearly no NATO operation and the issue of legitimacy and legality will remain debatable for quite some time to come.

    Consequently the coalition forces in Iraq are not there as more or less welcome peacekeepers but as occupation forces. This latter point should be kept in mind as we witness the beginning of a discussion of NATO role in Iraq.

    Under the extant UN mandate for the post-conflict situation all participating nations are likely to seen as occupying powers as far as their legal status is concerned. This status could well turn out to be a stumbling stone for some nations although the view is gaining support that stability in Iraq is a common interest of the US and the Europeans. Accordingly the will to help is growing and clearly nobody in NATO wishes to see the US and UK failing.
    Hence, if more NATO nations are needed to stabilize Iraq or a NATO role in Iraq is being considered then a new UNSCR appears to be indispensable.

  2. The other major difference is that NATO deployed to regions of Europe whose political fate was at best vaguely defined. This is still the case today and therefore both Bosnia and Kosovo are de facto NATO protectorates.

    This will never happen to Iraq. Iraq has a clearly defined identity as a state and the American President has clearly and unambiguously stated that Iraq will be preserved as an independent state within its pre-war borders.

    But the commonality between the Balkans and Iraq is that there was respectively is no functioning civil infrastructure and no civil administration to run the country. There was respectively is initially no indigenous interlocutor for the NATO Commander respectively the Coalition Force Commander.

  3. The security situation is different as well. In Bosnia as well as in Kosovo there was no military force which could dare to take on NATO and, more importantly, there was no longer any political will to resist.

    This seems to be different in Iraq, at least as long as Saddam Hussein is at large. No doubt, the country was completely defeated but there is still some resistance. It appears to be sporadic and limited to some parts of the country but it takes unfortunately its toll. It is an indeed open question whether this will come to an end once Saddam Hussein will be killed or captured since international terrorism will see the US forces in Iraq as its targets of opportunity.

  4. A last difference seems noteworthy as well. In the Balkans an overwhelming majority in Kosovo and a clear majority in Bosnia regarded the NATO forces as their saviors and as liberators.

    This is for the time being not the case in Iraq. The US still has to go an extra mile to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi. Too many Iraqis still fear that Saddam might return and they are therefore reluctant to cooperate with the US.

    Consequently the approach towards peacekeeping is and has to be very different from NATO’s successful way of nation building in the Balkans. But the lesson NATO learnt in the Balkans is that the more one focuses on force protection the more one will be seen as occupation forces which means after all to be hated and feared.

These discrepancies and similarities have to be kept in mind if somebody asks the question which lessons NATO had learnt and which of these lessons one could possibly apply in Iraq as well.

The Lessons Learnt: Domestic Security (Police, new legal System)
  1. Looking at NATO’s undisputable success in the Balkans which is there, despite the absence of a political end state for Bosnia as well as Kosovo which the people in both regions are willing to accept, my lesson learnt number one is that the prerequisite for literally everything is domestic security.

    Without it no investor will invest money into new business, without such investment no new jobs will be created which means that there will be no economic recovery which is the basis for self-sustained stability and democracy. Domestic security will not be achieved in countries which had been ruled by dictators and ruthless oppression if one asked the former police, the former judges and all the others who helped the previous regime to carry on and to serve those who took control of the country. Therefore law enforcement personnel which is not compromised by having served under the old regime as well as some legal framework has to be imposed on countries in which an armed intervention removed a political system from power which the citizens did no longer trust.

    The lesson NATO learnt was that one has to bring in immediately after the hostilities came to an end some constabulary or police forces as well as other law enforcement personnel and that one has to install a new judiciary system and with it, if necessary, news laws including a new penal code.

    To introduce a new currency as quickly as possible and to begin training of a new indigenous police force are additional steps which will accelerate the transformation to a new state. Such steps will teach the average man on the street that law and order are restored while his individual rights are respected and they will tell the outside world that the country concerned is a place where money can be safely invested.

    Such steps cannot be implemented over night and therefore para-military forces such as the Italian Carabinieri, the French Gendarmerie and the Spanish Guardia Civil could well assume responsibility immediately after the cessation of hostilities. As quickly as possible they should be relieved by civil police, first international and later new trained indigenous police, accompanied by appropriate civil administrators.

    NATO was not able to do this but it learnt the lesson as did the EU who decided to establish a 5.000 officers strong police force.
    Internal order requires a well functioning civil administration. NATO was not able to establish a functioning interim administration since too many well meant efforts got bogged down by the competition of the different organizations such as the UN, the OSCE, the EU and an incredible amount of NGOs. The solution seems to be to establish a simple and rather rigid chain of responsibility. NATO did not succeed in achieving that and I doubt that the international community will ever be able to go for this solution. Hence, the best possible outcome is most probably to arrange for a solution which avoids as much conflicting responsibilities as possible and which seeks to establish as early as conceivable indigenous civil administration.

  2. The second lesson learnt in the Balkans was that one needs immediately engineers and other specialized forces who can repair water and power supplies as well as the sewage systems, provided the needed spare parts are available.

    In addition forces are needed who can provide and run some public transportation.

    Depending on the situation on the ground such tasks will require military personnel if the risks are simply unbearable for unarmed civilian personnel. In the Balkans where thousands of mines had been scattered without any mine protocols NATO had no choice but to deploy such specialized forces which did extremely well in providing the people with the most needed commodities such as potable water and electrical energy.

    The US National Guard made a very substantial contribution, in Bosnia in particular, and helped NATO to repair the water supply, power stations, communications, bridges, roads and railroads. Having thus met the most urgent requirements necessary to kick-start a country NATO began to train indigenous military and police officers as well as civilian administrators knowing that they would be the pillars on which the attainability of the desired end state of a self sustained democracy depended to a large degree.

  3. The next lesson NATO learnt in the Balkans was that there is a continuum of crisis management which consists of three inseparable elements: Prevention, intervention and post-conflict stabilization.

    Nations or alliances which do neither possess the political will nor the capabilities to sustain these three phases until the end state has been achieved should better refrain from taking action.

Are these lessons applicable to Iraq ?

Turning to Iraq it appears as if not too many of these lessons learnt were in the mind of those who did the planning for the post conflict situation. Obviously the occupying powers tried to establish an interim administration in which one man is responsible but there the application of lessons learnt in the Balkans seems to end. This is a real surprise since the two occupying powers, the US and the UK, dispose after all of a wealth of experience in running foreign occupied countries successfully. The US can claim to have successfully transformed two countries which were liberated from rather authoritarian rule, Germany and Japan, into stable and predictable democracies. Therefore the only explanation I can think of is that those who did the planning erroneously believed that a clear majority of the Iraqi people would welcome the Americans and the British with bouquets of flowers as liberators and that the group of exiled Iraqi who advised them would be able to form quickly a skeleton civil administration. Such illusions disregard the impact some thirty years of tyranny have had on the Iraqi society, an impact which will remain as long as the fear or the hope exists that Saddam will return.

As the US obviously did not take into account most of the lessons learnt in the Balkans they increasingly realize the enormity of their task and they try to win their allies to support them in their efforts to run Iraq. The Administration seems to understand that ruling Iraq may rather sooner than later lead to an overstretch of American power and the figures which portray the military part of the picture clearly underline that:
Twenty four of thirty three US Army brigades are committed in overseas deployments and in addition some 135.000 reservists are called up to serve. It goes without saying that even the world’s sole superpower is unable to sustain such an effort for a couple of years. The US therefore needs allied support but it is reluctant to ask for it if it does not get it at its terms and, perhaps more importantly, the US do not, ( yet ? ), want to go to the UN again and to seek approval of a new UNSCR.

Without such a new resolution, however, participating forces would be seen as part of the occupying powers. This may turn out to be unacceptable to some nations and therefore there is little hope for a NATO role in Iraq as long as the legal basis for it remains unchanged. One reason for the American reluctance to involve either the UN or NATO is that the administration knows that Europe is still deeply divided over Iraq.


The Crisis in Transatlantic Relations

Europe and the transatlantic relations saw changes which were the result of the Iraq crisis, a crisis which was handled politically more inept on both sides of the Atlantic than anything I can recall in the field of crisis management during the last fifty years, a crisis in which the military operations were conducted superbly and in which the post-war situation proves to be so complex that it is by far too early to judge whether the net result will be success or failure.

None of the governments involved performed well but if one had to rate the governments for their performance in crisis management which means after all to be able to influence the events then the French and the German government would probably compete for the worst performance.

But to look back is to nobody’s advantage, the international community should concentrate on damage repair. There is a lot to do since Saddam Hussein succeeded in damaging severely the UN, NATO and the EU and, as long as the existence of WMD in Iraq remains to be proven, the credibility of the US.
Moreover, the way in which the US acted may serve as a precedent which might over time lead to substantial changes of the international law.

One of these questions about international law which were raised by this crisis once again is whether the notion of national sovereignty and its protection by the UN Charta should remain unchanged.

Another issue to be debated is whether the extant definition of self-defense and of prevention based on imminence is good enough in a world in which WMD are spreading.

There are no answers at this time but to refuse, as France, Russia and Germany do, change of an order which was born in the 17th century and then heavily influenced by the outcome of WW II and the defeat of colonialism is definitely no answer as well.

NATO was damaged as well since three nations blocked precautionary planning for the defense of a member nation. This really means to put the axe at the very roots of any defensive alliance since it destroys the credibility of NATO’s central promise, collective defense.


If no corrective action were taken nations, the US in particular, will inevitably look at coalitions of the willing. This is a tendency reinforced by the views of some in the USG who repeatedly stressed that the US needs allies but no alliances. Increased reliance on such coalitions, however, will turn out to be divisive at the end of the day. I firmly believe that NATO should not become a tool box. It should continue to take political decisions collectively and then delegate its execution to the most appropriate body NATO disposes of.

The EU is possibly the organization which was most severely damaged. Europe does no longer speak with one voice. The majority of the 15 member nations clearly signaled that they are not prepared to accept to be dominated by France and Germany. This view will get stronger as ten new members are about to join. On the other hand Europe must understand that the only way to have influence in Washington is to speak with one voice, a voice which is backed by capabilities. This means that all initiatives in the field of security and defense which do not include the UK are doomed to fail. The spring initiative taken by four European nations who wish to achieve more and closer defense cooperation will therefore fail as did the French attempt to enforce a multi-polar world during the Iraq crisis.

This brief glance across the Atlantic will have shown you that the divisions between allies are deeper than ever before. But there is no time to lie down and wait until the repair work was done and to discuss thereafter what the allies can do to stabilize Iraq.


The way ahead

Europe must understand, and I believe it does, that it is in Europe’s best interest if the US succeeds in their efforts to stabilize Iraq otherwise this country might become the home of a fresh terrorist attempt to attack all of us. The US on the other hand must understand that it needs more than allies.


It needs an alliance full of reliable allies whom are ready and capable of taking on risks together with their American allies. This means, however, that decisions have to be taken collectively.

Therefore the US and Europe should see the stabilization of Iraq as a common responsibility and should, based on a new UNSCR, agree that NATO should run the security part of the show and EU / US cooperation should lead the economic recovery.

NATO has much to offer in running post conflict stabilization operations and it has a lot to gain if nations once again rallied behind a common course.
In a follow-on step the US and their European allies should work together to draft a NATO strategic concept for the stabilization of the greater Middle East of which both Iraq and Afghanistan are parts.

This huge long term task of stabilizing the entire region from North Africa through the Levant, the Middle East to Central Asia and the Indian Ocean is tomorrow’s challenge for Europeans and North Americans alike.

Both have no alternative but to take it on shoulder to shoulder. This task should mark both, NATO’s new vision and NATO’s new frontier. If this were to happen then the mistakes made over the Iraq crisis would have transformed the crisis into a chance.

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