Center for Strategic Decision Research

Paris '07 Workshop

Iraq and Afghanistan: Lessons to Learn for NATO

Italian Amb to NATO Stefano Stefanini

Ambassador Stefano Stefanini
Permanent Representative of Italy
on the North Atlantic Council

Italian Ambassador to NATO Stefano Stefanini (2nd from right), with Italian Chief of Defense Admiral Giampaolo Di Paola, Georgian Vice Prime Minister Giorgi Baramidze, and Spanish Ambassador to NATO Pablo Benavides Orgaz (left to right).

"Four years into the war, Iraq is in bad shape, but NATO is in better shape not being in Iraq than
it would have been if it were there. So the Iraq issue should not affect NATO, should it?
In fact, it does and it will.  [There will be ]...dire consequences of an American failure in Iraq."


        Security is a matter of perception. The question we have to ask ourselves is whether or not our perception of a secure environment actually reflects a corresponding degree of security.

        Conventional wisdom (and political correctness) about Afghanistan and Iraq is that because the countries are different, the lessons we draw from them should be different. My point is somewhat different. Leaving aside any comparison of the two nations, there is one simple, common thread to follow—the same that we find in Gaza and in Haiti, for that matter. It is that we have to stay engaged. We may think these countries do not affect our security, but that is wrong. Thinking that way is a security-perception trap that we can’t afford—it is false security.

        Today we cannot insulate ourselves at home from insecurity elsewhere.

If and when we try to do it, the insecurity outside our borders will come back to haunt us.

        Does this fact affect NATO? It does if you take NATO—as I do—to be the main, and possibly the only, institution tying together North America and Europe. If this is the tool for our common Atlantic security, then this is what we have to work with, and we have to make the tool work effectively—we can’t continuously retool international institutions. So when I say lessons that need to be learned for NATO, I mean collective lessons that need to be learned for Europe and America and like–minded friends,and that I hope can be learned together.

        As for NATO proper, let’s look at its involvement in the specific situations we are discussing—full involvement in Afghanistan, marginal involvement in Iraq, and nonexistent involvement in Gaza. Let’s try to assess each one.


        Afghanistan is a work in progress. It is a tough but doable job, especially if the achievements we strive for are realistic. Unfortunately we sometimes pursue goals that are not achievable, certainly not in the short or medium term, and this is something we should not do because then Afghanistan’s and NATO’s performance will be gauged against unattainable standards. However, if we strive for achievable goals, Afghanistan can be a success story. NATO’s presence and leadership in Afghanistan is working both as a cause and as an effect. Indeed, “international legitimacy allows NATO to be in Afghanistan; NATO’s leading role perpetuates such legitimacy.”


        Iraq is in a different league because, a) there was never any prospect of NATO taking a leading role there, and b) if there had been a prospect, NATO, as an Alliance operating by consensus, would have chosen not to take it. Four years into the war, Iraq is in bad shape, but NATO is in better shape not being in Iraq than it would have been being there. So the Iraq issue should not affect NATO, should it? In fact, it does and it will, in more ways than one.

        Approximately a year before this workshop, in a data-based, matter-of-fact article in the Washington Post entitled “What Next?”, Daniel Byman and Kenneth Pollack raised the prospect of the many dire consequences of an “American failure” in Iraq:

• A refugee crisis (up to 13 million)

• New breeding ground for terrorism

• Contagious radicalism and sectarianism spilling over into neighbouring countries

• Secession breeding secessionism

• Neighbourly interventions

The authors’ conclusion was that failure in Iraq would not relieve the U.S. of its responsibilities there; in fact, it could multiply them. If it did, could Europe afford the luxury of sitting out and looking the other way, as if such a disaster would affect only America and not Europe?


        Gaza is in yet another league. There is no involvement whatsoever from NATO, the U.S., or Europe. With no engagement there is no security. Can Europe and America pretend that a Hamas radicalized-at–gunpoint Gaza does not affect them both?

        Gaza is the epitome of the failure to engage. By not engaging we risk endangering our security. In Iraq, at least, the U.S. tried and tries hard. Certainly Washington can’t be faulted for not engaging in Iraq—rather, it’s the contrary. Moreover, many if not all European allies, as well as NATO regarding the training of the Iraqi army and police (NTMI), are there to help.


        1. In Iraq mistakes have been made, but they should be left to the historians, who will have a field day. We should concern ourselves instead with what can be done to correct the mistakes and minimize their consequences. Byman and Pollack’s “What Next?” has yet to come. There is still time —though not much—to work on it. Simply ignoring what comes next and letting come what may is not the answer. That’s lesson one: “engage”.

        2. If NATO had been in Iraq, as it is in Afghanistan, would Iraq have been different? We will never know, but would we all be better off if Iraq had been dealt with as an American–European joint venture from the beginning, as Bosnia and Kosovo were in the 90s? There is no answer to this question, but it is worth more than a passing thought. So lesson 2 is : “engage together”.

        3. We can decide, of course, that we don’t want any of it and steer clear of insecurity and crisis. We can decide to ride out the threats That insecurity and crisis cause. But if we do, we would be deluding ourselves,  retreating into the comfort of our distance and our affluence.

        If we choose not to engage, then yes, NATO is ready for retirement.

But if we, Europeans as well as Americans, decide otherwise—if we decide that our security requires us to confront the issues as we have often done successfully in the recent and not-so-recent past—be the issue Afghanistan, Iraq, Gaza, or Somalia, we had better use NATO to do the job. And we had better use it proactively, together with the array of international institutions (the EU, the OSCE, and the U.N.) that are available to us. Lesson three, then, is “use NATO when we can to engage”.

        4. Lesson four is to realize that NATO is the only Atlantic Alliance we have.

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