NATO and EU - commitment in Iraq ?

Posted in Other | 12-Apr-06 | Author: Luigi Caligaris

Luigi Caligaris is member of the WSN International Advisory Board.

Since George W Bush has recently stated that it will not be him but his successor to decide when to withdraw from Iraq, it follows that for the next three years the American led coalition will have to continue presiding over Iraq security. His choice is convincing because a premature and hasty withdrawal could provoke harsh repercussions all over the world, erode United States credibility as Superpower, make civil war in Iraq more likely, stir up disturbing reactions well beyond its borders . Last but not least, it could also lead, among Americans, to a post war syndrome, similar to the Vietnam one which, after that war, had depressed for years their morale.

That said, it is most important to figure the residual operational clout of the coalition after its troops will be reduced either by cutting down national contributions as it will be done by the United States, Great Britain and Korea or by withdrawing some of the largest national contingents as, within 2006, the Italian and the Japanese. It is obvious that, while the scaling down of troops could be appropriate if Iraq were close to political normality and its security forces were bearing most of the security burden, it is instead contradictory in a situation, which remains critical in spite of upbeat comments by the US Administration.

As a guess, the slimming of the coalition might be meant to replace a confrontational posture with a passive status quo, both to improve the political climate at home and to prepare the ground for a future low profile exit strategy. Such impression seems plausible since the coalition, instead of relying upon an innovative strategy to face a growing threat with its decreasing forces, has chosen to opt for some pragmatic fixes.

Their list should include : a more selective use of force to reduce casualties among soldiers and population, more time for the troops to be spent in isolated military camps and safety to be provided to civilian firms and NGOs carrying out humanitarian and reconstruction initiatives. While those measures might have been right in the early stages of the post-war period, when terrorists and insurgents were few and in disarray and the population was looking forward to peace, in the present troublesome scenario they seem quite inadequate.

At present, Irregular forces ( terrorists, insurgents, militias, guerrilla etc ), increased in numbers and daring, boldly operate throughout the country, more and more intermingled with a population who obeys, hosts, conceals them while Syria and Iran keep offering them sanctuaries. If the coalition, by implementing the new trend, relented its fight against irregular forces, ever larger parts of the territory might fall under their control and the country would become more unstable. This “fix”, reminds of Clausewitz blaming “ statesmen who issue orders that defeat the purpose they are meant to serve”.

If all this were to happen and if the coalition, in order to counter it , were to get back to its high operational profile, it might find that the challenge had changed for the worse. Against a more urbanized enemy counting on people’s proximity and complicity, intelligence would be scarcer, “search and destroy” more difficult and risky, “shock and wave” less practicable, high tech and firepower less effective, And casualties would again grow, alarming public opinions.

As proved by British who fought irregular forces in other parts of the world, one way to deal with the problem is to isolate irregulars from the population by creating “safe areas” where civilians can live and work in peace and where from irregulars are excluded and, being forced into the open, could be more effectively fought . In parallel, a staunch effort should be made to “win hearts and minds” of the people, gaining their respect through meaningful cooperation.

Such method, which also would have been easier to apply soon after the war, is not simple and cheap but demanding and also manpower intensive. It needs large numbers of highly professional troops to fight irregulars, prepare local soldiers and policemen, seal and the man “safe areas”, control borders and lines of communications, grant safety to firms and NGOs, etc. However, since Iraqi present situation is critical only in six out of the eighteen provinces, the commitment would be less demanding. the coalition had been strengthened.

Nevertheless, the coalition would need to be strengthened and changed. At present, it belongs to those “ defined by the mission” , which are no more than loose nets of bilateral relations linking each military contingent with the American “core”. Such model, as it limits cooperation and cohesion with various caveats and exceptions, is not suitable for a complex operation which would need a very cohesive and cooperative structure . NATO is the only reliable option because it is a prestigious institution, it has unparalleled experience in multinational operations, it has an effective consultative and decision making body and its forces are interoperable.

European NATO members could promote a NATO coalition in Iraq both politically and militarily, contributing to build up international support for the initiative and attaching to it up to sixty thousand soldiers. Their help in solving a security problem that worries the world, would also be logical as, if Europe had a common security policy, Iraq stability and security would be rated among its vital interests.

Moreover, to build up a stronger and even more representative multinational force, other troops could come from Arab, African, Asian countries; Russia, which has already operated with NATO and is an old hand in the area, could also take part. As a whole, the coalition could count upon two hundred thousand soldiers. Incidentally, such a solution for Iraq would not be too different from what NATO Europeans, Americans and others are already successfully doing in Afghanistan.

The main difference between the two commitments is mostly political. No one challenged American intervention in Afghanistan and, therefore, no one objected to giving a hand in restoring there peace. The Iraqi problem is instead perceived everywhere very differently and the post war commitment is still seen as the continuation of a most unpopular war which provoked world’s dissent and caused a furious polemic between some Europeans and the Americans as well as among Europeans themselves. Never NATO has been so dramatically split.

The perception in Europe has not changed and it has proved most difficult for individual European countries to participate to a post war commitment which for most people is still warlike and illegitimate. It might instead be easier if the initiative received broad and staunch support by European countries in NATO and the latter were given a mandate from the UN Security Council whose permanent members’ interest in the Persian Gulf stability might persuade them to concur. If it so happened the legitimacy and legality of the operation would not be so harshly questioned.

Such initiative would healthily induce Europeans to define a common line of action to be agreed with Americans within institutional NATO lines and also the European Union would benefit from as new European awareness. This course, already tested in the Balkans and now at work in Afghanistan it would, because of its greater difficulty, strongly concur to well balanced political and military cooperation between the two shores of the Atlantic, encouraging synergies between European “soft policies” and American “hard” ones. The unprecedented willingness to share risks, costs and burdens would enormously improve Euro-American relations and be the by product of the common enterprise.

There are lots of reasons for opposing an initiative that might get the United States off the hook in Iraq. Some actor states might wish the United States to fail while American unilateralists and European multilateralists want, for opposite reasons, the United States to be left alone.

Europe’s perception of its common interest is also a valuable reason for engaging in the unpopular enterprise. While unforgivable if it went on ignoring the drama in Iraq, well inside the so strategically vital Greater Middle East, by instead contributing to this complex and risky peace support operation it would prove that it is willing to pay the price for being a world pole and not a mere aggregation of states . It is up to Europe to make up its mind and choose.