A decade ago the Afghanistan mission was seen as giving a possibly moribund post-cold war NATO new relevance, scope, and purpose.
At a summit meeting today and tomorrow NATO will consider a scheduled withdrawal from a still-divided, dysfunctional, and vulnerable Afghanistan, endeavor to respond effectively to Russian aggression in Ukraine, and review a deteriorating international security environment across wide areas of North Africa and the Near East.
While the current threat may be less existential, I perceive Europe has not confronted an equally complex security context since perhaps 1949. The implications for the United States are also complicated and multi-layered.
Yesterday — on his way to the NATO summit — the President met with his Lithuanian, Estonian, and Latvian peers in Tallinn. These three Baltic states constitute the Northeastern frontier of the alliance.
Given the venue (Tallinn is 230 miles from St. Petersburg, 650 miles from Moscow, and 780 miles from Kiev), the President’s formal remarks needed to focus mostly on the Russian threat. Given the reality of this threat — and the institutional DNA of the alliance — today’s NATO consultations are also likely to be dominated by Putin’s provocations.
But Wednesday afternoon (local time) the President answered reporters questions on how NATO might take up what is happening just outside the southeastern corner of the alliance. Here are his most extended comments:
Even before ISIL dominated the headlines, one of the concerns that we have had is the development of terrorist networks and organizations, separate and apart from al Qaeda, whose focus oftentimes is regional and who are combining terrorist tactics with the tactics of small armies. And we’ve seen ISIS to be the first one that has broken through, but we anticipated this awhile back and it was reflected in my West Point speech.
So one of our goals is to get NATO to work with us to help create the kinds of partnerships regionally that can combat not just ISIL, but these kinds of networks as they arise and potentially destabilize allies and partners of ours in the region.
Already we’ve seen NATO countries recognize the severity of this problem, that it is going to be a long-run problem. Immediately, they’ve dedicated resources to help us with humanitarian airdrops, to provide arms to the Peshmerga and to the Iraqi security forces. And we welcome those efforts. What we hope to do at the NATO Summit is to make sure that we are more systematic about how we do it, that we’re more focused about how we do it.
NATO is unique in the annals of history as a successful alliance. But we have to recognize that threats evolve, and threats have evolved as a consequence of what we’ve seen in Ukraine, but threats are also evolving in the Middle East that have a direct effect on Europe… We know that if we are joined by the international community, we can continue to shrink ISIL’s sphere of influence, its effectiveness, its financing, its military capabilities to the point where it is a manageable problem. And the question is going to be making sure we’ve got the right strategy, but also making sure that we’ve got the international will to do it. This is something that is a continuation of a problem we’ve seen certainly since 9/11, but before. And it continues to metastasize in different ways.
And what we’ve got to do is make sure that we are organizing the Arab world, the Middle East, the Muslim world along with the international community to isolate this cancer, this particular brand of extremism that is, first and foremost, destructive to the Muslim world and the Arab world and North Africa, and the people who live there. They’re the ones who are most severely affected. They’re the ones who are constantly under threat of being killed. They’re the ones whose economies are completely upended to the point where they can’t produce their own food and they can’t produce the kinds of goods and services to sell in the world marketplace. And they’re falling behind because of this very small and narrow, but very dangerous, segment of the population. And we’ve got to combat it in a sustained, effective way. And I’m confident we’re going to be able to do that.
The foregoing sets-out the institutional (NATO) and international (North African and Near Eastern) context. Action is signaled. But in terms of US strategic objectives for actions taken within this context, I found the following comments from earlier in the press conference to be most helpful:
Our objective is to make sure that ISIL is not an ongoing threat to the region. And we can accomplish that. It’s going to take some time and it’s going to take some effort. As we’ve seen with al Qaeda, there are always going to be remnants that can cause havoc of any of these networks, in part because of the nature of terrorist activities. You get a few individuals, and they may be able to carry out a terrorist act.
But what we can do is to make sure that the kind of systemic and broad-based aggression that we’ve seen out of ISIL that terrorizes primarily Muslims, Shia, Sunni — terrorizes Kurds, terrorizes not just Iraqis, but people throughout the region, that that is degraded to the point where it is no longer the kind of factor that we’ve seen it being over the last several months.
We will shrink it. We will degrade it. We will over-time and with deliberate effort eliminate its capacity for systematic and broad-based aggression. We can reduce it to a manageable problem. But there are always going to be remnants that can cause havoc. The threat of violent extremism will continue to metastasize for the foreseeable future. New groups — new “its” — will emerge. The long-term solution will arise — or not — within the host cultures, within Arab and Muslim and other social constructs. Working with a broad alliance of committed and mobilized partners we can mostly contain the threat to us. We will try to facilitate more creative engagement of the problem by locals. But it is beyond the capacity of the United States alone to solve this problem. It will continue to be with us for a long time. We will continue to be targeted and sometimes they will hit us where it hurts.
Perhaps the President cannot — ought not — be quite as clear as the previous paragraph. Though he seems clear enough. Isn’t this a reasonable “translation” of what he is saying? Isn’t this consistent with prior comments and behavior?
If my paragraph accurately channels the President, doesn’t this authoritatively frame the counter-terrorism element of the homeland security mission? Certainly it would communicate a current commander’s intent. It also seems — to me — to effectively describe the strategic reality.
Today’s Times of London (paywall) has published a joint op-ed by Prime Minister Cameron and President Obama. (Draft available at Prime Minister’s website.) Reflecting the themes suggested above, here is one of their –no doubt, carefully vetted — paragraphs.
We know that terrorist organisations thrive where there is political instability and weak or dysfunctional political institutions. So we must invest in the building blocks of free and open societies, including the creation of a new genuinely inclusive Government in Iraq that can unite all Iraqis, including Sunni, Shia, Kurdish, Christian and other minority populations. When the threats to our security increasingly emanate from outside the borders of our Alliance, we must do more to build partnerships with others around the globe who share our values and want to build a safe, tolerant and peaceful world – that includes supporting the partners who are taking the fight to ISIL on the ground, as we have done by stepping up support for Kurdish and Iraqi Security Forces. And we should use our expertise to provide training and mentoring to forces elsewhere, whether in Georgia or the Middle East, strengthening the capacity of forces there to tackle local threats.