September 4, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: NATO Summit to Confront Major Issues

• The September 4-5 NATO summit meeting in Cardiff, Wales, had been expected to focus on the future Afghanistan security mission, but the growing Islamic State (IS) and Ukraine crises have emerged as central to the summit agenda

• US allies in NATO are reluctant to take on any new military missions, but there is a high degree of consensus among the alliance to confront the IS menace and face down the Russian Putinist threat to Ukraine’s sovereignty

• The dispute over the Afghan presidential election threatens NATO successes in Afghanistan, but member states are still committed to contributing forces to a post-2014 security mission

• Europe’s continuing economic problems and relatively small defense spending ensure that NATO countries will defer to the US on any major new initiatives.


Planning for the September 4-5 NATO summit in Wales focused on a few major issues – force and financial contributions for a post-2014 NATO training mission in Afghanistan, and the broader issue of European country defense spending. United States outlays currently constitute 73% of NATO defense spending, giving the US substantial incentive to encourage additional allied contributions.

NATO countries have pledged to spend 2% of respective GDPs on defense, but only four members (including the US and UK) are meeting that goal. Other NATO members, particularly Germany, are resisting increasing their defense spending to target levels—not only because of the weak European economy but also not to aggravate the crisis with Russia over Ukraine any further.

Another issue that has consumed summit planners has been the post-2014 NATO security mission in Afghanistan. For the past ten years, Afghanistan has been NATO’s most prominent “out of area operation” (security mission outside NATO’s European core area). And, with Afghanistan relatively stable politically and the Taliban insurgency not gaining significantly against the Afghanistan National Security Forces (ANSF), the country was seen as a NATO “success story.” By the time of the present summit, planners had assumed, Afghanistan would have a newly-elected president who would have signed “bilateral security agreements” allowing US and NATO partners to continue the mission after 2014.

Instead, all the hallmarks of success in Afghanistan are turning negative. The presidential election process, which began with a first round on April 5, has produced no certified, accepted outcome. The first round front-runner, Abdullah Abdullah, identified with the Tajik community, has accused his opponent, Ashraf Ghani, a Pashtun, of widespread fraud in the June runoff. Preliminary runoff results put Ghani ahead by 56% to 44%, but a full vote recount will not be completed until at least September 10, according to the UN mission in Afghanistan. Two US-brokered Abdullah-Ghani election dispute agreements—which included an agreement on post-election power sharing—have broken down and Abdullah vowed not to accept a formal declaration of a Ghani victory.

Certification of a Ghani win could cause mass demonstrations in Afghanistan, possible inter-communal violence, and a potential fracturing of ANSF. The political uncertainty has emboldened the Taliban to challenge ANSF more aggressively in southern Afghanistan and in Kabul city as well. In order to avoid further uncertainty in Afghanistan, the summit will likely sidestep the Afghan election dispute and proceed to announce force and financial contributions to the post-2014 NATO “Resolute Support” training and counter-terrorism mission in Afghanistan.


Islamic State and Ukraine Front and Center

The two issues that will largely overshadow Afghanistan and defense spending at the summit are the new threats to Europe and the US posed by the so-called Islamic State (IS) and by Russia’s support for pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine. Of the two, the Ukraine issue more clearly relates to NATO’s mission, insofar as the NATO alliance’s central mission is to secure Europe from any aggression, presumably from Russia. Ukraine is not a member of NATO but its new leaders seek eventual membership—a chronic provocation in the Putinist view—as well as NATO’s help in the current crisis.

Rebels in eastern Ukraine, supported by Russian advice, equipment, and irregular forces—and, despite persistent official denials, apparent Russian regulars—are making substantial gains against poorly-equipped Ukrainian government units. The US and partners have imposed relatively modest sanctions on Russia, sent additional forces to eastern Europe, and provided mostly non-lethal military aid to Ukraine. As a show of support not only for Ukraine but for other eastern European NATO members vulnerable to Russian pressure, the NATO summit will likely formally back a proposed “Readiness Action Plan” to form a several-thousand troop reserve force that could intervene by land or sea on short notice. In his speech in Estonia on the eve of the summit, President Obama announced that Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko will visit Washington in coming weeks.

IS will undoubtedly occupy a significant portion of the summit agenda as NATO countries, particularly Britain, express growing concern about the ease with which IS members can enter Europe from Iraq and Syria. With the possible exception of Britain, no NATO state has expressed inclination to join US direct military action against IS in Iraq. The US has itself appeared hesitant to expand the anti-IS battlefield into Syria, and it is likely that the NATO summit will focus on responses other than additional direct military action. A growing number of European countries are sending military aid to the Iraqi Kurds and there will likely be additional pledges announced during the summit.



Despite the Afghan election dispute, the NATO summit will likely announce force contributions for the post-2014 Resolute Support training and counter-terrorism mission and financial contributions for ANSF. These pledges will likely be made contingent on an accepted outcome of the Afghan presidential election and Afghanistan’s signing bilateral security agreements with the US and NATO.

The summit is likely to back the proposal for a NATO rapid intervention force as a gesture of support for Ukraine at a time when it is suffering setbacks at the hands of Russia-supported rebels in the east. The NATO summit is unlikely to announce any new direct military action against IS, either in Iraq or in Syria—at least at this time—although allies are likely to pledge support for US efforts to defeat that organization.

With European economies stagnant or weakening again, agreements on European defense spending increases are highly unlikely.


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