Robert E. Hunter, who was U.S. ambassador to NATO from 1993-98, says that at this week’s meeting of NATO foreign ministers, the current controversy over "rendition" of prisoners pales in importance to the issue of whether the NATO countries will agree to a significant increase in the size of their forces in Afghanistan, and to use it in combat roles. He says the Netherlands has raised some doubts that could scuttle plans to increase the force level from 10,000 to 16,000.
"I would say that the big event this week is not this political and psychological, political issue of rendition and the CIA, but whether Secretary [of State Condoleezza] Rice will succeed in convincing U.S. allies to stay the course in Afghanistan," says Hunter, currently senior adviser at the RAND Corporation and president of the Atlantic Treaty Association. He says, "I think they’re prepared to do so and also to take on more responsibilities. That’s going to be a tough sale but an important sale, and one to which I think the leadership under NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer is deeply committed."
Hunter was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on December 6, 2005.
The semi-annual meeting of NATO foreign ministers takes place this week in Brussels. It is taking place against a background of controversy in Europe over the United States’ use of so-called renditions, where it flies certain prisoners secretly to different countries and has them incarcerated and questioned. Had you ever heard of this when you were a NATO ambassador in the 1990s?
To put it very simply, no. In fact I don’t even know if it was a practice in those days. A lot of this, one has to understand, is post-9/11, which has been a rather extraordinary time for the United States.
What does the United States gain from doing this?
To begin with, I don’t know how much of it we do. I don’t know how much of what we’re seeing in the newspapers is accurate. One of the problems with this, in general, is everyone is operating with circumstantial evidence or circumstantial commentary. It might be useful to clear the air; to have a better picture of what is involved, what isn’t involved. We have the formal statements by the Secretary of State [Condoleezza Rice] which, I thought were quite categorical and straightforward.
But it’s one of these issues that get "legs" the longer it goes on without clear explanation. Having said that, I think the argument is that in this very complicated and difficult and demanding world of terrorism there is something gained in sending to other places people who one believes has committed, or could commit more serious attacks on the United States or its friends and allies. In particular, their home countries might be better able to deal with them in terms of language and culture, environment and the like. Whether it’s a useful thing or not to do, I think we need to have a real debate and decision on.
To me it’s interesting that none of the European countries that have been alleged to be the places where some of these "renditions" have taken place have acknowledged knowing anything about the practice. Presumably, somebody knew about them.
Again, we’re operating in a murky environment here as to what the facts are. I suspect that in each of these countries there was at least somebody responsible, who understood it. These countries are put under a lot of pressure by the United States at a time when the United States to be cooperative. Some of them, of course, may find it useful in terms of trying to get information of potential or real terrorists. Having said all that and to try to demystify this a little bit, this is one of those questions in which you have to consider, what is the value of doing "x" versus the political and other costs, if "x" is revealed? And that’s a balance that has to be struck. And in this case, there are some doubts that it was struck in the right way. A particular action might be fine if it remains secret, but what happens if it becomes revealed? Do I pay a higher price? And this may be one of those cases.
Let’s move on to the NATO meeting. The official business of the NATO meeting, I assume, is the expansion of an International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan?
Afghanistan is the No. 1 question on the agenda for a couple of reasons. First, it’s in the United States’ interest to try to get NATO countries further engaged in Afghanistan, not only in the tasks that they’ve been doing, which is with the PRTs [the Provisional Reconstruction Teams]. The United States has also been hoping to get NATO forces and the NATO command more engaged in the southern and southeastern parts of Afghanistan, where most of the fighting has been going on. The U.S. command has some 18,000 troops in Afghanistan that have been doing the bulk of the fighting.
The United States would like to reduce its troop presence and be able to use those forces elsewhere, including Iraq. There has been some resistance on the part of some NATO allies, in particular the Dutch, who have now indicated they may not want to play that role and that has slowed down and may even derail the effort to get NATO to play a broader military role. That’s one element of the discussions that are going on, which is as much political as it is military.
The other aspect is NATO’s engagement in Afghanistan overall. Every NATO ally is involved in the ISAF. That includes Iceland, which doesn’t even have any military forces but sends a couple of doctors to it. It has been so significant for NATO that for a period of time this year the commander of forces there was a French general, which is remarkable because this is an operation run under the integrated military command under the Supreme Allied Commander of Europe, General [James L.] Jones. And here are the French who are not technically part of the command acting taking over as commander. And they have no problem with that.
But the most important thing is that NATO, in its entire history, has never failed and the NATO members don’t want the first failure to be in Afghanistan. That’s one reason NATO countries resist deeper engagement in Iraq; it’s one reason they were a little bit leery of too much engagement in the Persian Gulf with the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative [that provided security throughout the broader Middle East]. I would say that the big event this week is not this political and psychological, political issue of renditions and the CIA, but whether Secretary Rice will succeed in convincing U.S. allies to stay the course in Afghanistan. I think they’re prepared to do so and also to take on more responsibilities. That’s going to be a tough sale but an important sale, and one to which I think the leadership under NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer is deeply committed.
You don’t think the "fix" is already in on this?
The fix is clearly not in; at least it wasn’t as of last week. I was at a conference last week in Doha that RAND organized with NATO as part of the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative and at that point, the fix was clearly not in.
There are about 10,000 NATO forces in Afghanistan now under NATO command?
Something like that, yes.
The U.S. desire is to expand these to 16,000.
That’s right, and to take further responsibilities in the southern, southeastern part where the fighting is taking place.
The numbers are always a problem, but enough arm-twisting and enough "lets all do this to preserve NATO" can generally deal with the number of forces. The real issue is taking over an increasing potential for a combat role, and there people thought it was more or less on track until the Dutch government announced it might not be able to take on the role. I would say it’s going to be a lot of tough bargaining this week. They may not even come to closure. But for NATO, this is going to be a major test and a test of American leadership.
What’s the problem for the Dutch? They’ve been pretty supportive of the United States, right?
They’ve been very supportive of the United States. There’s no question about that. But there is a resistance back home to putting troops in harm’s way in a far-off region of Afghanistan.
Obviously, they’re having major second thoughts about being engaged in the fighting part of Afghanistan and a number of other countries may find shelter in the Dutch position.
NATO has to work unanimously?
They have to take decisions unanimously and that is a very important concept. When they take decisions unanimously, everybody does fall into line on the political part of the decision, but not every country has to take part. NATO in that sense is always a coalition of the willing. Some countries are involved and some aren’t. It is remarkable that in the ISAF every single NATO ally is there because it is so important. It more directly relates to the war on terror than it does to what’s going on in Iraq. Nobody in NATO has any doubts about the importance of the war on terror or the importance of Afghanistan as a central focus of that.
Some NATO countries are helping out in Iraq independently, right?
There are some countries involved. There is some NATO training, but no appetite for further engagement in Iraq. Part of that is because several of their allies say, "Look, NATO as an institution has bought into Afghanistan and NATO as an institution cannot be permitted to fail," and that’s why there is reluctance, led by the Dutch. I suspect that when push comes to shove, if not at this meeting then at the next defense ministers’ meeting in the spring, something will get agreed on. It’s going to require a good deal of effort by the United States, a good deal of indication of exactly what is involved and what the end of the mission might look like.
I gather some of the NATO countries that have small contingents in Iraq are looking to pull out.
Iraq has to been seen as separate. As I say, NATO has a commitment in Afghanistan. It looks at it in institutional terms and also in terms as a central focus on the war on terror. For example, despite all the difficulties between the United States and some countries over Iraq, those difficulties have not spilled over to U.S. relations within NATO or U.S. relations with the European Union. Now in Iraq, a number of countries are either pulling out their forces or announced they would. The Italians want to reduce their contingent, the Greeks, the Poles, and the British next year want to reduce their forces. There’s not much stomach at this point for countries to be so exposed in Iraq. Whether that changes after December 15th after the elections in Iraq and what happens afterwards, we will have to see.
What about NATO as an institution? Is it going to continue to expand? Is NATO going to take in Ukraine also?
There are two summits slated at this point. One will almost certainly take place in Riga, Latvia, probably next October or November; a smaller summit is likely [planned for] the last year of the Bush administration. Some people are saying that that second summit should issue an invitation to Ukraine to join along with possibly one or two other countries, like Croatia.
This is going to force a major debate, I suspect more serious than any debate on NATO enlargement since the very first one at the Madrid Summit in 1997 over the entrance of the Czech Republic, Hungry, and Poland, for a couple of simple reasons. One, it is still not clear that the democratic experiment in Ukraine is taking hold. Secondly, the country is still very deeply divided between, let’s say, its Western population and its Eastern population, the latter having a very heavy Russian component. Third, given the state of relations between the United States and Russia, internal developments in Russia and Russia trying to find its own future, for NATO to go forward and take in Ukraine without a much clearer understanding with Russia could be asking for real trouble.
I’m sure the summit in Riga will cause a lot of heartburn in Moscow as well.
I think the Russians have come to terms with the existence of the Baltic States now within NATO. But I think a number of Russians have recognized that if they have productive relationships with these states that have gained some membership in NATO and the European Union, economically that can be very helpful to at least the western parts of Russia. I think they’ve gotten over that particular concern. But Ukraine, from the Russian perspective and the Ukrainian perspective, is a real strategic issue if it actually comes formally into NATO. Right now, I would have to say Ukraine certainly is not ready for that, nor is NATO ready for that, nor is the NATO-Russia relationship ready for that.
It is hard to envision Ukraine, which was an integral party of Russia, as part of NATO.
I don’t actually see a problem of countries joining NATO, provided a couple of things are fulfilled: one, that NATO continues to be effective; secondly, these countries are ready to be fully engaged in the West; and third, membership of country "A" doesn’t come at the expense of interests of country "B." President George H.W. Bush enunciated the grand strategy that is being pursued in a simple phrase, "To try to create a Europe whole and free." The NATO perspective since then has always been that any country can join NATO if it’s ready and willing to meet the requirements of NATO membership, to try to indicate that NATO is not a threat to anybody but it is a threat against the forces of instability. Working with the Russians to reassure them on that and to engage them more deeply in NATO, beginning with the NATO-Russia council, is of major strategic significance for everybody in Europe—to try to achieve the goal that nobody has ever had a chance to even try since Charlemagne, "Europe whole and free."
How is NATO doing overall?
I think people outside the professional community that follows this, has to understand that NATO is really thriving in this decade as it did in the last decade because it has gone through a major internal transformation. The old argument that [Senator] Richard Lugar [R-IN] had twelve years ago, "NATO out of business or out of area," has been decisively answered. NATO allies are now prepared to be engaged in a host of places. Most remarkable perhaps, is Afghanistan and the commitment in Afghanistan to get it right, to be successful. The United States, since the problems of 2003 [the Iraq invasion] is now showing a much more positive perspective on NATO. The President’s visit [to Europe] in February, what Secretary Rice has been doing, and Secretary [of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld has come around to see the renewed value of NATO. The key element, of course, as always is American leadership. When American leadership is there NATO works; when it’s not, it doesn’t. That is what we have to look to.