According to General James Jones, Nato’s Supreme Allied Commander, the battles against the Taliban in Afghanistan have been like stirring up a hornet’s nest.
Jones isn’t ashamed to admit that Nato has been taken back by the intensity of the fighting - and by the Taliban’s tactics, which involve set-piece battles. Hence his public call last week for hundreds more soldiers - which stirred up a hornet’s nest of its own.
The Gen wants Nato’s 26 member countries to stump up a 1,000-strong reserve battalion and air support involving up to 1,500 extra personnnel. But on Wednesday a special “force generation conference” failed to provide commitments for a single extra soldier. On Thursday Poland confirmed it was sending 1,000 soldiers to Afghanistan next year, although it’s far from clear that this scheduled deployment will provide the flexible force Gen Jones says he needs.
All the same his request has highlighted two important facts about the way the world is.
First, Nato justifiably takes pride in its record in generating troops for military missions. But in a world where forces are stretched by commitments from Cote d’Ivoire to Kosovo to Kabul, this is becoming more difficult all the time. In that context, the rather messy process by which EU nations managed to come up with 7,000 soldiers for Lebanon in a month now looks rather impressive.
Second, theories about the use of military force have moved with the times. In the 1990s, the Powell doctrine - the use of massive force to overwhelm an enemy - held sway. This resulted in far too many soldiers being sent to places such as Bosnia and Kosovo, where many of them remain.
In the early years of this decade, it was the Rumsfeld doctrine of fast, smaller forces that prevailed. This meant sending too few soldiers to Afghanistan and Iraq. In Afghanistan’s Helmand province, for example, there were only a handful of US soldiers in a region where thousands of British now battle the Taliban.
With Jones’ call for more troops, we are perhaps moving to more sensible levels of staffing. But with so many and such varied deployments across the world, will it be possible to find sufficient soldiers?