The Blog

Coalition of the Incapable

The declining relevance of European military power.

11:00 PM, Nov 7, 2007 • By STUART KOEHL
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ONE OF THE MOST common complaints made against the Bush administration's war policies is it's alleged "unilateralism," an unwillingness to bring in our allies or fight as a coalition. This view overlooks the participation of many countries alongside U.S. forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Granted, these are often small countries, with proportionally small contingents, but they are there, they share the risk, and sometimes they spill their blood as well.

The charge of "unilateralism" also overlooks U.S. military doctrine, which explicitly recognizes both the necessity and the inevitability of coalition warfare. The Department of Defense's top-level transformational document, Joint Vision 2020 (JV 2020) clearly considers "multinational operations" to be the norm for future conflicts:

Since our potential multinational partners will have varying levels of technology, a tailored approach to interoperability that accommodates a wide range of needs and capabilities is necessary. Our more technically advanced allies will have systems and equipment that are essentially compatible, enabling them to interface and share information in order to operate effectively with US forces at all levels. However, we must also be capable of operating with allies and coalition partners who may be technologically incompatible--especially at the tactical level. Additionally, many of our future partners will have significant specialized capabilities that may be integrated into a common operating scheme.

Even though, in many ways, multinational operations are more complex and difficult to organize and control than unilateral actions, the U.S. military has taken significant steps to address the interoperability requirement outlined in JV 2020, particularly with regard to "allies and coalition partners who may be technologically incompatible." U.S. commanders have also learned to handle the delicate political and diplomatic issues that are inevitable concomitant of multinational operations. So the charge of "unilateralism" on its face isn't really true.

Those who complain of the "unilateralism" actually refer to the failure of the Bush administration to more fully engage America's NATO allies and convince them to bear a greater share of the burden in fighting "the Global War on Terror." Leaving aside the support of the "Anglosphere" (mainly the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia), the contribution of our Western allies to the cause can best be described as niggardly. Germany and France, the two largest Western European powers, never contributed forces to a combat role in Iraq, and their presence in Afghanistan has been limited mainly to support units. True, Spain and Italy made small but useful contributions to the Coalition in Iraq, but when the going got tough, they got going, while most other Western European countries avoided deployment in Iraq.

In Afghanistan, on the other hand, the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) came under NATO control in August 2003. Today, ISAF consists of some 42,750 troops from 29 countries. However, these numbers are less impressive when examined in detail. First, the United States contributes 17,000 troops to ISAF, or 40 percent of the total force (this does not include 8000 more U.S. troops under U.S. control, mainly engaged in the training of the Afghan security forces). Of the remaining 25,750, 2,000 come from non-NATO countries, leaving the non-U.S. NATO contribution at just 22,750 men. Of these, the United Kingdom contributes 6,700 and Canada another 2500, meaning that the NATO states of continental Europe contribute 14,500 men. Of those, the bulk come from just six countries (France, Turkey, Poland, the Netherlands, Italy and Germany), who account for 10,700 troops. Of those, Germany has the largest contingent with just 3,434 troops (who are prohibited by German law from participating in offensive operations against the Taliban).