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Trump wants greater counter-terrorism role for NATO – but what?


BRUSSELS – As recent events only too visibly show, the new US administration is putting all kinds of pressure – political, budgetary and operational – on NATO.

Washington’s demand on 15 February for the allies to nail down their specifics for reaching NATO’s 2-percent-of-GDP defence spending guideline is only the latest example. While politically difficult, the allies still have eight years, until 2024, to do that though they will now have to embed their effort in concrete plans and timetables to please NATO’s biggest member.

A more prickly challenge for the European allies could be US President Donald Trump’s demand that NATO take a more active role in the fight against terrorism. This would, of course, boost not only America’s security but that of Europe.

There are several options, but one thing NATO would not do is take on an active combat role against terrorist groups such as the Islamic State, also known as “Daesh”. There is simply no political appetite among the allies to do that.

So what are possibilities?

One would be for NATO to step up its back-room support to the US-led coalition fighting Daesh in Iraq and Syria. That would entail more AWACS sorties, making full use of NATO’s soon-to-be-operational fleet of high altitude drones and expanding its training activities in Iraq.

The alliance has only just begun – in January 2017 – to train small batches of Iraqi military personnel to counter improvised explosive devices (IEDs). One could easily imagine Trump and team demanding a vastly expanded training effort by the European allies in that country – something that includes regular infantry, officers and pilot training and perhaps equipment donations.

Elsewhere, the White House could exert pressure for the EU and NATO to step up their intelligence cooperation. The two already discreetly exchange a certain amount of date, but there is still much room to expand it.

More joint patrols and information exchanges between EU and NATO maritime missions is another possibility, and not just in the Mediterranean. This points to more vigilance and coordination on the part of the national coast guards, water police and naval forces of NATO and EU countries around Europe’s entire littoral territory. That would not be an easy task to pull off but it would demonstrate political and operational goodwill by the European allies.

Finally, the European allies will need to get more serious about confronting the terrorist issues of North Africa, the Sahara and the Sahelian belt. So far, it has been left to the EU, international police agencies such as Interpol and US authorities such as its drug enforcement and customs agencies and the US military command known as Africom to deal with these regions’ security challenges.

As the very first step, this would require beefing up NATO’s 23-year old Mediterranean Dialogue forum with Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia into far more than the talking shop that it has been for most of its history.

NATO needs to pour far more concrete substance into each of its bilateral relations with these countries and, where possible, push for more sub-regional cooperation between them in the fight against terrorism. That means more intelligence-sharing, more training by the allies of their security forces and more shoring up of their security institutions with NATO expertise and advice.

     THE UPSHOT: Short of a combat role, NATO needs to visibly demonstrate to the White House – and to Europe’s citizens – that it is more effectively addressing the land-side threats from North Africa. It is too easy to sit on an allied ship safely anchored far from Libya’s shore and claim credit for countering terrorism when the real scale of the threat lies not in capturing suspects on the high seas but in quashing the criminal-terrorist networks in human smuggling, arms trafficking and jihadism across North Africa and the Sahel, from the Atlantic to the Indian oceans.
     NATO has two opportunities to boost its profile here. One is the new “hub” which it intends to create by end-2017 within its military command in Naples. Technically, the hub augment NATO’s eyes-and-ears to detect and survey threats emanating across its southern perimeter.
     But if NATO is clever, the hub should do far more than that by training the Med Dialogue countries’ personnel in the arts of intelligence gathering and analysis. That would be a concrete contribution to the fight against terrorism. Indeed, Libya’s Government of National Accord has just put in a request on 14 February – after years of hesitation – for NATO to help build up its defence and security structures. Why not have the hub train Libyan personnel?
     Second, the hub should establish a working relationship as soon as possible with the new “NATO-Istanbul Cooperation Initiative Regional Centre” in Kuwait. Created on 24 January, the centre will enable NATO to work with Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE to boost the region’s security and fight against terrorism and extremism. The hub and the centre will need to exchange a lot of information and shared analysis.


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