The Truth about NATO Burden-Sharing

BRUSSELS – When discussing Afghanistan, many newspapers continue to suggest that some of Europe’s NATO allies are under-performing in Afghanistan, and are either unable or unwilling to make a greater effort. Naturally, these allies feel that their efforts are under-valued. What is a fair and equitable burden?

First of all, the debate about burden-sharing should not be reduced solely to today’s force levels in Afghanistan, because, however important these force levels are, they tell only part of the story. So let me broaden the debate and offer a more holistic perspective by covering three interconnected elements: defense transformation, operations, and the wider context of the international community’s efforts.

Defense transformation is a key aspect of burden-sharing. It is a golden rule within the alliance that the bulk of NATO’s forces and capabilities are owned by individual nations – the alliance’s fleet of Airborne Warning and Command System (AWACS) aircraft is a rare exception. As I don’t expect nations to abandon this principle, NATO will continue to depend on individual allies and their willingness to commit resources.

Contrary to popular opinion, the type of forces and capabilities needed by NATO are not as widely available in national inventories as one might think. Large proportions of NATO allies’ armed forces are still better suited for static territorial defense than for the expeditionary type of operation needed in Afghanistan. And, when the right type of forces and capabilities do exist, operations led by the United Nations, the European Union, or ad hoc coalitions, as well as national requirements, place additional demands on these assets.