Strategic and political lessons about NATO operations over the past 20 years

The well-known German security expert and former State secretary in the German Defense Ministry (1982-89) Professor Dr. Lothar Rühl, at the occasion of a Christmas dinner organized by the German – Atlantic Society near Bonn, spoke on the subject “The international deployment of NATO and the North Atlantic security policy”. In the centre of Rühl’s review of NATO military operations over the past 20 years was the question what strategic and political lessons must be drawn from these operations for the future of NATO? Rühl was quite open in his criticism concerning the recently negotiated “coalition treaty” between CDU/ CSU (Christian Democrats) and SPD (Social Democrats). He called it a “Great Coalition hodgepodge” and criticized the political “reluctance” of the German Chancellor Merkel, who is unable to break through the “friendly political disinterest” of the German population and if necessary, govern against the will of the people. This lack of political “Entschlossenheit” (determination) could lead to a situation where Germany is taken over by the “realities” or rather “eaten” by the “facts” that at the moment are not adequately perceived.  At the same time he warned against an “overstretching” of NATO in reference to the eastward expansion of NATO which has occurred over the last years up to the borders of Russia.

About two weeks ago, the speaker published a full-page article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ, 11.11.13) under the title “Hot Autumn in the Cold War”. In this article Rühl gave a detailed overview about the “rearmament debate” in Germany, the NATO double-track decision and deployment of Pershing II missiles at the beginning of the 80s in response to the stationing of Soviet medium-range missiles SS-20. At that time the peace movement in Germany and Western Europe was at its peak. Rühl mentioned the journeys which in that period Soviet Colonel General Nikolai Tscherwow, Director for International Affairs at the Moscow Ministry of Defense, did throughout the Federal Republic of Germany. He participated in “uniform” in the discussions of the peace movement, an “unprecedented scandal in the diplomatic history of the post-war history”, as Rühl commented in the FAZ.  He added that in his capacity as State Secretary at the Bonn based Federal Ministry of Defence he invited the Soviet Colonel General for talks whose aim was to initiate a continued dialogue at the military level. In agreement with former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Moscow was “offered secret German – Soviet general staff talks” by German Defence Minister Manfred Woerner, to which the Soviet government and Marshal Ogarkov agreed. The talks were conducted in a rational atmosphere and contributed to a certain unofficial relaxation which also continued after the stationing of the missiles. During his speech in Bonn Rühl again made reference to the general staff talks between the German and Soviet military. He pointed out that Soviet Marshal Ogarkov was very grateful at the time, to be able to discuss directly with representatives from the German General Staff.

Strategic and political lessons

On this background it is worthwhile to look at the quite sobering analysis which Rühl made in Bonn. The focus of his remarks was centred on the question: What lessons can be drawn for future conflicts from the two Balkan war missions, the Bosnian War 1994/94, the war in Kosovo in 1998/99 and the Afghanistan mission, which began in 2001. Rühl pointed to the weaknesses of the former operations: an unclear military chain of command; lack of a unified high command (i.e. an overload with three armed forces commands and the U.S. supreme commander of NATO General Wesley Clark) and no clear idea of the strategic goal and the length of the respective interventions.

The effect of the Kosovo war (1998 /99) after about 70 days, as Rühl commented, was not very “decisive”. The Serbian forces remained de facto intact and 47 000 soldiers of the Serbian forces began their retreat across bridges that NATO had previously reported as “destroyed”. Confusion was also evident within the political leadership of some Western Allies. Given the traditional close ties between France and Serbia, leaks were coming from the French, giving Serbia information about military attack plans by NATO on Serbia.

Another factor would be the factor of “time”. If the war in Kosovo had begun at an earlier time, Rühl emphasized in reference to statements made by the former inspector of the German army General Naumann, the losses would have been substantially reduced. (Even if in retrospect it is quite difficult to prove such a statement.) The war lasted little more than70 days and provoked a huge refugee wave including several hundreds of thousands of refugees and leading to the destruction of valuable infrastructure.

Another example is the military intervention of the ISAF in Afghanistan, covered by the UN Security Council resolution in 2001. The result after more than 12 years of “mission” in Afghanistan is that the U.S. and other ISAF forces have begun with the “disengagement” of their troops. With the remaining 15.000 troops and 800 police forces, a totally unclear situation in within Afghanistan and in neighbouring Pakistan and in the Pashtun border region, it still remains an open question whether this “exit strategy” will succeed in the future.

According to Rühl the most important strategic lessons which can be drawn from the military interventions of the last years are:

* The question of “timing” for the use of military force, which always implies serious risks and leads to the loss of valuable time. The interventions would have to be “limited”.

* Another lesson is that future military interventions need to have clear and “realistic goals”. “In the Afghanistan war the main objective — a stabilization of the country – had become unrealistic since 2001.” Each foreign power in Afghanistan was and is considered as an “occupying power”.  An open question remains also the “reconstruction” of the country. Therefore, an intervention policy by military means and the subsequent deployment of police forces must be limited in time.

* Additional lessons to be drawn concern the use of diplomacy in connection with the threat of violence (the most recent example having been Syria);

* A clear concept for the “stabilization” of a country.

Rühl emphasized that Germany must become more involved in international politics. He commented in a critical way the relationship between politics and the military in Germany and pointed to a dilemma which is particular for Germany: the lack of political will and political power. And he added that there had been only three great and important German Chancellors, who had the courage to rule against the “friendly indifference” of the population: Konrad Adenauer (CDU), Willy Brandt (SPD) and Helmut Schmidt (SPD). All three had the courage if need be to enforce decisions against the will of the population.

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