NATO's Dilemma: Asset Specificity and the Challenge of Securing Afghanistan

By Safwan B. Shabab
Cornell International Affairs Review
2010, Vol. 3 No. 2 | pg. 2/2 |

The North Atlantic Council should remain in charge of allocating a portion of this central budget to the ISAF and the allocated central fund should subsequently be managed by the Kabul-based multinational command structure. Mission commanders on the ground can secure funding according to operational needs by coordinating with the ISAF headquarters in Kabul. In the process, the national units will not have to directly apply for funding to their own governments and publicly burden the political administration at home: a ‘rechannelized' budget would eliminate the ‘costs lie where they fall' approach with the ISAF Headquarters now technically responsible for managing all mission-related expenditure.

Inadequate Civilian Assets

In a multidimensional security environment where civilian reconstruction efforts are as critical as military successes, especially during the stabilization and transitional phases, ISAF's difficulties have been complicated by the poor quality of civilian assets at its disposal. Perhaps the most notable civilian asset developed by the ISAF is its PRTs: these are civilian-military units assigned to work with Afghan provincial-level officials to provide and promote governance, development and security. And yet, owing to their structures, these PRTs face serious challenges, deterring many member states from contributing to PRT-based operations. A total of 26 PRTs are in place led by 14 different nations, each run using an unique national approach.31

Officially, the military component of each PRT falls under ISAF command; however, there is no established modus operandi (or overall concept of operations), many are dominated by military forces rather than civilian technicians and prefer reporting directly to their national representatives than the ISAF Headquarters.32 As a result, there is little coordination amongst the PRTs and no scope for exchanging information on best practices. For instance, the Netherlands channels funding for PRTs directly to the Afghan government instead of through the ISAF mission as it deems that the latter must take responsibility for planning and implementation of projects.

In contrast, the US government controls the funds for PRTs itself but for the very opposite reason: it is apprehensive of corrupt Afghan officials misusing the funds and prefers to exercise direct overview of its PRTs.33 Without a uniform ISAF approach for the PRTs, each member state operate these teams at will, perceive the effectiveness of these civilian assets differently and hence contribute in varying scale and in the process frustrates Afghan, UN and other partners in their efforts to apply resources strategically and effectively.

In addition, some states such as Germany are weary that in some areas, civilian relief organizations should not be too closely associated with the military forces assigned to the PRTs since they feel that "their own security and perceived neutrality is endangered."34 As a result, many European member states do not provide for an optimum number of civilian and military personnel in their respective PRTs (in addition to being minimally funded, as shown in the Netherlands case) and are hesitant to engage with the Afghan population. Some states, notably France, have even refused to lead a PRT and questioned the NATO's role in operating these reconstruction teams. For what could have been an impactful civilian asset as part of the ISAF's comprehensive civilian-military approach in Afghanistan, the PRTs have been marred by operational deficiencies and differences and limit the channels for member states to contribute through.

It is important to note the ISAF has witnessed the positive impact of an effective civilian asset in another instrument it has developed for itself since Phase III, albeit on a minimal scale: the Operational Mentoring Liaison Teams (OMLTs). These are teams which support the Afghan National Army (ANA) deployments and coordinate between ISAF and ANA to provide critical Allied support such as medical evacuation. While OMLTs may not be a purely civilian asset, there is much that the ISAF can learn from the OMLT structure to strengthen its repertoire of assets in Afghanistan. These teams are comprised of 1219 personnel, a small size that ensures mobility and are deployed for at least six months in each theater to build strong relationships with the ANA and maximize mentoring effort.35

Moreover, there are specific objectives that each OMLT is assigned with along with a tactical guideline that allows for incorporation of feedback from local Afghan units — such strategic clarity combined with flexibility have allowed the OMLTs to concentrate on training ANA forces on the ground while fostering strong connections with Afghans, in this case ANA soldiers. While France has largely led the OMLT-based efforts and there is still a shortfall of the recommended 59 units till date, the OMLTs provide example of a well-developed asset that the ISAF can emulate. The OMLT model — with institutionalized guidelines, responsiveness to changing security needs and an optimum size that facilitates close interaction with locals — allows for an asset to be effective in achieving specific security or reconstruction goals. Such assets in turn provide a channel for NATO member states to contribute into the ISAF mission, especially for those who opt to support reconstruction efforts and avoid military engagement.

In order to address the shortfall of specific civilian assets, the ISAF will need to establish a modus operandi for its PRTs: a uniform approach to the operations of these teams can be initiated by ensuring that they report directly to the ISAF Headquarters instead of their national representatives. This is likely to result in more coordination and exchange of best practices amongst the PRTs. Similar to the OMLTs, these PRTs would have to adopt an optimum operational size, increased interaction with local Afghans and importantly, delineate its specific objectives and timetable for each mission.


Ivo Daalder and James Goldgeier had suggested that NATO should be expanded to include partners outside Europe in a bid to become a ‘global NATO'.36 And yet those aspirations seem premature before the alliance completes its mission in Afghanistan — and does so successfully. The multidimensional challenges in Afghanistan raise questions whether NATO is capable of redefining itself as a security alliance capable of committing beyond Europe. However, despite these current shortcomings, it is important to remember this is not the first time that the NATO has faced such a challenge.

Similar critique was put forth at the end of the Cold War but NATO successfully proved its worth by engaging in Bosnia and Kosovo during the 1990s. Success there was largely attributable to its ability to develop specific assets to address the unique security needs of the operations. And if the alliance is to stabilize Afghanistan, it needs to do the same. This is the only way NATO can ensure the collective action that is an absolute necessity in winning the complex war in Afghanistan.


Belkin, Paul and Morelli, Vincent “NATO in Afghanistan: A Test of the Transatlantic Alliance”, Congressional Research Services Report for Congress, 2009.

Cook, Frank, “NATO Operations: Current Priorities and Lessons Learned,” NATO Parliamentary Assembly Report, 158 DSC 08 E, 2008.

Cook, Frank, “Afghanistan: A Turning Point?” in NATO Parliamentary Assembly Report, 172 DSC 09 E, 2009.

Daalder, Ivo and Goldgeier, James, “Global NATO,” in Foreign Affairs 85,5, 2006.

Dale, Catherine, “War in Afghanistan: Strategy, Military Operations, and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Services Report for Congress, 2009.

Douglas, Frank. The United States, NATO and a New Multilateral Relationship, London: Praeger Security International, 2008.

Forster, Peter and Cimbala, Steven, The U.S., NATO, and Burden-Sharing, London: Routledge, 2005.

Hillison, Joel. “New NATO Member: Security Consumers or Producers?” in Strategic Studies Institute Quarterly, 2009.

McChrystal, Stanley. Commander’s Initial Assessment, International Security Assistance Force Headquarters – Afghanistan, 2009.

Mearsheimer, John, “Why We Will Soon Miss the Cold War,” in Richard K. Betts, ed., Conflict After the Cold War, New York: Pearson Longman, 2008.

Moravcsik, Andrew, “Striking a New Transatlantic Bargain” in Foreign Affairs, 82,2 2003.

Olson, Marcus, Logic of Collective Action, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971.

Smith, Julianne and Williams, Michael, “What Lies Beneath: The Future of NATO through the ISAF Prism”, in Royal United Services Institute Report, 2008.

Suhrke, Astri. “A Contradictory Mission? NATO from Stabilization to Combat in Afghanistan,” in International Peacekeeping, 15,2, 2008.

Thies, Wallace. Why NATO Endures, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Walker, Joshua, “NATO’s Litmus Test: Prioritizing Afghanistan” in Journal of Transatlantic Studies, 5 (2) 2007.

Wallander, Celeste, “Institutional Assets and Adaptability: NATO after the Cold War” in International Organization v.54, Autumn 2000.

Webber, Mark and Sperling, James, “NATO: from Kosovo to Kabul,” in International Affairs 85:3, 2009.


  1. Frank Cook, “NATO Operations: Current Priorities and Lessons Learned,” in NATO Parliamentary Assembly Report 2008, (158 DSC 08 E, 2008), 14.
  2. Article 6 of the Charter applies NATO’s collective defense to territories of ‘the Parties in Europe or North America…to the islands under the jurisdiction of any Party in the North Atlantic area north of Tropic of Cancer’; what lies beyond the confines of this definition ‘out-of-area operation’. Afghanistan falls into this latter category.
  3. Writing in 1990, John Mearsheimer had predicted that ‘without a common Soviet threat or an American night watchman’, a transatlantic institution such as the NATO would lose its raison-d’être and dissolve. John Mearsheimer, “Why We Will Soon Miss the Cold War,” in Richard Betts, ed., Conflict After the Cold War, (New York: Pearson Longman, 2008), 22.
  4. Mark Webber and James Sperling, “NATO: from Kosovo to Kabul,” in International Affairs 85:3 (2009), 491.
  5. In NATO’s 2007 Parliamentary Report, only six NATO members were at or above the benchmark of military expenditure ‘at 2 percent of GDP’ standard: Bulgaria, France, Greece, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Peter Forster and Steven Cimbala, The U.S., NATO, and Burden-Sharing, (London: Routledge, 2005), 164.
  6. Paul Belkin and Vincent Morelli, “NATO in Afghanistan: A Test of the Transatlantic Alliance”, Congressional Research Services Report for Congress (August 2009), 22.
  7. Joel Hillison, “New NATO Member: Security Consumers or Producers?” in Strategic Studies Institute Quarterly, April 2009, 3.
  8. It is important to note that this uneven burden sharing is not so much a transatlantic issue but rather an intra-European problem – along with the US, some European states have been engaging in risky and costly missions in the ISAF but another set of European states opt out of their commitment in Afghanistan. Regardless, such a ‘two-tiered’ status of the Afghanistan mission is highly problematic, especially in context of the growing Taliban insurgency and a severe crisis of confidence in the Kabul government. Stanley McChrystal, “Commander’s Initial Assessment”, International Security Assistance Force Headquarters – Afghanistan, August 2009.
  9. Marcus Olson, Logic of Collective Action, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971), 4.
  10. Celeste Wallander, “Institutional Assets and Adaptability: NATO after the Cold War” in International Organization v.54, Autumn 2000, 707.
  11. Wallander, 707.
  12. Wallander, 710.
  13. Well-developed specific assets have been attributed for NATO’s success in previous missions. The creation of a new planning staff at SHAPE and a Crisis Coordination Center in Brussels in 1994 allowed for a planned and swift deployment of a joint task force in Kosovo as the crisis there escalated in 1999. Wallander, 718.
  14. Wallander, 719.
  15. NATO planned that ISAF operations in Afghanistan would have five phases. The first phase was “assessment and preparation”, including initial operations only in Kabul. The second phase was ISAF’s geographic expansion throughout Afghanistan completed in 2006. The final three phases would involve stabilization; transition; and redeployment. At the start of 2009, ISAF was operating in Phase III, “stabilization” and Phase IV, the “transition” of security responsibility to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) may follow soon. Belkin and Morelli, 9.
  16. The fast changing environment in Afghanistan requires ISAF to cope with threats that arise from well organized militants, drug lords as well as splinter local groups and governance challenges require balancing local loya jirgas and national government agencies. To that end, specific assets pose a dilemma for ISAF; once developed and utilized successfully, the specific assets lose their usefulness and operational mobility necessitates new specific assets to be deployed.
  17. Belkin and Morelli, 1.
  18. Sperling and Webber, 502. Belkin and Morelli, 4.
  19. Julianne Smith and Michael Williams, “What Lies Beneath: The Future of NATO Through the ISAF Prism”, in Royal United Services Institute Report, March 2008, 2.
  20. Belkin and Morelli, 16.
  21. Frank Cook, “Afghanistan: A Turning Point?” in NATO Parliamentary Assembly Report 2009, (172 DSC 09 E), 4.
  22. Belkin and Morelli, 17.
  23. As described by Commander of NATO’s Joint Forces Command Brunssum. Webber and Sperling, 509.
  24. Belkin and Morelli, 22.
  25. Cook, “Afghanistan: A Turning Point?”, 3.
  26. NATO, Nato’s New Strategic Concept – Why? How?Available on Accessed March 7, 2010.
  27. Forster and Steven Cimbala
  28. Cook, “NATO Operations: Current Priorities and Lessons Learned”, 14.
  29. Smith and Williams, 5.
  30. Cook, “NATO Operations: Current Priorities and Lessons Learned”, 14.
  31. Cook, “NATO Operations: Current Priorities and Lessons Learned,” 5.
  32. Belkin and Morelli, 14.
  33. Belkin and Morelli, 13.
  34. Belkin and Morelli, 12.
  35. Cook, “NATO Operations: Current Priorities and Lessons Learned,” 5.
  36. Ivo Daalder and James Goldgeier, “Global NATO,” in Foreign Affairs. 85,5, 2006.

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