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Why NATO and the EU should jointly address post-conflicts

Euro-View: Martin Howard on EU-NATO co-operation

Martin Howard

Not much budged BREXIT from the UK media during July. But one exception was the Chilcot report on Britain’s role in the Iraq war. Many headlines were about the decision to go to war, its legality and the intelligence failures that preceded it.

But just as important was what the report said about the aftermath. It’s important because that failure not only led to most of the bad news that has come out Iraq, but also because the lessons go beyond that conflict. Looking at Afghanistan and Libya, those lessons seem not to have been learnt.

We need to be careful about drawing parallels. But there is a common theme. After a successful military campaign, there emerged a governance and security vacuum that has allowed malign forces to flourish. The complete answer to this has to be indigenous accountable government and long term economic development, all supported by the international community.

The crucial period is the immediate aftermath of conflict when what is essential is security and competent basic governance. If that happens, there is a basis for longer term post-conflict programmes to get established. Otherwise, chronic instability and violence can take hold.

Let’s focus on security and law and order. It must be for any new indigenous leadership to drive this. But in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, it is clear – and hindsight is not necessary – that substantial international help was needed and will be needed if such a situation arises again. (On Europe’s doorstep, Libya remains unfinished business and at some point all or part of Syria will need fixing).

A first step is the rapid establishment of accountable military and police forces to provide reasonably effective, everyday security. International assistance in this field has usually been quicker and more successful with the military than with the police.

I would argue that for that for basic day-to-day security in a post-conflict situation, it should be the other way round. But this is hard. For most nations or institutions it is easier to deploy military forces to do training than to provide police forces at scale.

More difficult still is the rapid establishment of locally acceptable justice systems. One of the reasons for the Taliban’s comeback in parts of Afghanistan was that they provided a judicial framework – not one the citizens much liked, but seen as better than anarchy. And without that framework, soldiers and policemen trained and equipped by the international community simply become people with weapons who contribute to instability. Similarly with government institutions: it is no good building an army if there is not a Ministry of Defence to exert control; nor police forces without a Ministry of the Interior or provincial governance structures to do the same.

This is not to say that no-one tried. Western nations and Europe-based institutions have been involved in all three cases, but often late and incoherently.

In Iraq, work to set up Defence and Interior ministries took months to get underway, and were only integrated with police and military training in 2005. The NATO training mission, with its focus on police training using Italian Carabinieri, was not established till 2004.

Early efforts in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban were dominated by poorly co-ordinated national contributions. The EU police mission didn’t start until 2007 and remains a small-scale effort. NATO’s training mission there that brought together police and military training was not properly established until 2010. Finally, the failure to deal with an all too predictable fragmentation of security in Libya after NATO’s 2011 bombing campaign is stark, as US President Barack Obama has admitted.

Why is it so difficult to get this right?

There have been successful examples of post-conflict institution building. Despite major problems, the Western Balkans is, I would argue, a net success (bearing in mind where we were in the 1990s). Further afield, UN-led missions paved the way for relatively stable outcomes in Namibia and Cambodia in the early 1990s.

But part of the problem is that these programmes take time and inevitably lead to compromises about what constitutes an acceptable level of security, about standards of justice, about how to handle cultural and religious differences or corruption and so on. Unlike military campaigns, it is intrinsically difficult to declare “mission accomplished”.

But as the Chilcot report implies, there is really no point in launching external intervention if the handling of the immediate aftermath is not planned and resourced.

So here’s an idea. The NATO Warsaw summit saw a historic agreement between the Alliance and the EU to work better together. It would be great if this genuinely marks a new beginning. If it does, why not get the two organisations to look at how they might operate together such as doing joint missions to deal with immediate post-crisis stabilisation?

NATO could focus, for example, on the more military, hard-edged part of a security package, with the EU focusing on police and high-level law and order structures. Each has done this before but always in separate pipe stacks. A joint mission could offer far better co-ordination and timelines of implementation.

Of course that is not the whole answer. Other multilateral organisations, individual nations and NGOs all have a part to play. But it’s not a bad place to start in making sure that lessons such as those of the Chilcot report are not simply identified, but acted upon.

     Martin Howard is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science researching post-conflict stabilisation and is a former NATO Assistant Secretary General for Operations. He can be reached at m.howard@lse.ac.uk or by phone at +44 7949 889017.

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