Admiral James Stavridis is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s Supreme Allied Commander for Europe (SACEUR). He previously served as Commander of the United States Department of the Navy Southern Command.
Libya has been called a “model intervention.” Could you tell us more about the mission and what made it such?
I think first and foremost it showed us that NATO can work and work fast. We had a U.N. Security Council resolution. The alliance – 28 nations, as well as Arab partners and European partners – all responded very quickly to this threatened humanitarian disaster in Libya. As well, we also see Libya as place where the Allies were able to bring a variety of military technology together, integrate it, and perform, I think, very well under a U.N. Security Council Resolution to avert a real humanitarian disaster.
Were there shortcomings?
With any operation, we’re going to have lessons learned. In Libya I’ll give you a couple. We needed better intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. We needed more precision guided ordinance. We never ran out, but we found a lot of pressure on our stockpiles. And then thirdly we needed better intelligence. So these are all three types of areas in which the alliance I think can do better in future endeavors.
What was the impact of not having the intelligence on the ground in Libya that you would have liked?
Well, I think you hit with the phrase “on the ground.” By not having boots on the ground, we had to develop all of our targeting from satellites, from our unmanned aerial vehicles – we had to put all of that together. And it takes time, so it made it harder to respond to time-sensitive targeting than it would’ve been if we had spotters on the ground.
This is not the first time that NATO has led passed interventions. What have been the lessons learned?
Well, I think the one I would point to is the Balkans, where NATO was involved both in Bosnia and in Kosovo – two separate operations. What we learned was the need for speed, for the alliance to move quickly in a matter of days to get overhead. During the Balkans interventions, it often took months for the political machinations to be concluded. Here the alliance moved in a matter of days. Secondly, precision guided weapons because that allows us to reduce collateral damage, to reduce the number of civilian lives lost. We used a very high percentage – almost 100 percent — precision guided weapons in the Libyan campaign. And then thirdly, this idea of bringing together intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance we learned from our operations in the Balkans how to do that much better in Libya.
What was the role of the United States and other allies in the NATO intervention in Libya?
The way I would categorize it, Robert, is the allies did about seventy-five percent of everything in the operation. U.S. only did about twenty-five percent, but the twenty-five percent that the U.S. did was very important and included air to air refueling, targeting, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. In a sense, what we saw in this division of labor was what alliances do. Nations bring what they’re particularly good at to the table. Here the U.S. brought, if you will, the tactical back office; whereas the other allies, notably Britain and France but also other European countries, were out front doing about seventy-five percent of the sorties. And I would add that the maritime operation, which was a fairly significant part of this because it sealed off the borders so additional weapons couldn’t flow to the Qaddafi regime. That maritime operation was done 100 percent by the Europeans. So it was a pretty robust level of effort by our European partners with a very important back office component from the United States.
Is NATO prepared to carry out similar interventions in the future if called upon?
We are. NATO continues to draw lessons learned from Libya, as well as our operations ongoing in Afghanistan, as well as our previous operations in the Balkans. We’re also at sea conducting piracy missions. From all of these operations that NATO does, and we have 150,000 troops on three continents conducting missions, we draw those lessons. We get better like any person or any organization; we learn from our mistakes. We also learn from our success. And I would argue that the NATO alliance is prepared to take on future operations.
A lot has been decided in Lisbon and Chicago about the future of NATO in Afghanistan. Could you walk our viewers through the plans for transition and draw down to come in 2013 and 2014?
Sure. And we are on track and on plan in terms of the transition to Afghan Security Forces, which is really the main plank, if you will, in the security plan in Afghanistan. Today we have seventy-five percent of the population under Afghan security lead operations. That’s remarkable considering that we’ve ramped that up over the last two years. Between now and the end of 2014—about two and a half years – we’ll move that to 100 percent of the population will go under Afghan lead security operations. Secondly, the Afghan security forces – currently about 330,00 – will ramp up to about 355,000, which will enable them to take that last twenty-five percent and effectively undertake security in their own nation. We’re seeing the results of this, in that the casualties for coalition soldiers are down thirty percent from last year; whereas the Afghan casualty rate is rising as they move to the front and take on the fight in their own country. So that transition is moving along very well. What you also heard at the summit in Chicago was all of the nations – the fifty troop contributing nations and the seventy additional nations – altogether saying we are going to add four billion dollars in funding for the Afghan security forces going forward. So we have a plan to continue post-2014 the engagement that will support this transition, that I think is successfully unfolding at the moment.
How does the NATO plan align post 2014 with the United States plans to engage in bi-lateral negotiations?
I think very, very much; it is tightly interwoven. The fit and finish between NATO planning and U.S. planning right now, and I would point to the fact that the U.S. continues to be the lead in developing some of the key plans, and that will be manifested in this post-2014 security procedures.
Are there areas in Afghanistan where you are concerned of security in handing over control to the Afghans?
At the moment I’m fairly confident that we will have reasonable security control handed over the Afghans throughout the country, and even today we see the vast majority of violent instances occur in ten percent of the area of Afghanistan. So we’ll continue to focus on those areas that are in the east and the south. The north and the west are going extremely well. Kabul is going well. And I’m confident that we’ll continue to isolate the insurgency as we head towards 2014.
Afghanistan and Libya have had dramatically different impacts on the public perception of NATO. What do you think that means for the future of the organization?
As I look at both Libya and Afghanistan, I think they were two extraordinarily different operations. Libya was, of course, focused completely on air and sea. It was done in a very tactical sort of way and lasted only nine months. Afghanistan, on the other hand, is a strategic operation. It’s important because this is the part of the world from which the 9/11 attacks evolved, where al-Qaeda maintained a base for a decade and more. Therefore, there’s a much longer time frame to it. Longer is harder in terms of maintaining public support. So I think that temporal distinction is probably the most important between the two of them.
Secondly, I would say that, in both cases, we are learning and growing as an organization; as we make our mistakes we also adjust and continue to improve, and that I think is a factor that is impacting public support for this. But I’m, again, convinced that as we get to 2014 and continue the transition that we’ve talked about, having a plan will build the public support necessary for the transition.
How does the support of countries outside of the NATO alliance (i.e. Pakistan) affect the organization’s missions?
Yeah, there’s always challenges in any military operation because of impact in surrounding countries. Pakistan has its own very significant challenges, which they are stepping up and meeting as they conduct counter-terrorist operations on their side of the border. We’ve had a couple of cross-border incidents, but I believe we’ve worked through those and the relationship between the coalition, NATO, ISAF forces in Afghanistan, and the Pakistani forces is proceeding well. We’ve reopened the ground lines of communication, and I think over time the forces of moderation in Afghanistan will allow Afghanistan to succeed, and that will be a good thing for Pakistan across the border as they deal with the challenges of the Pakistan insurgency.
How will the defense cuts in the United States and in Europe affect NATO?
I think as all of our defense budgets are drawn down, the idea of an alliance becomes even more important. It’s how we can share resources; it’s how we can pool our good ideas. Within NATO we call this “smart defense,” and it’s the idea that all the nations have things to contribute in their expertise, in their technology, and in their trained warriors. All of this comes together. So as defense budgets draw down, the importance of this transatlantic alliance will actually rise.
Given the limited funds in the United States and in Europe, what are the areas where you would prioritize defense spending?
I may surprise you with the first answer, but for me, I worry a lot about cyber. I worry a lot about the potential impact of a major cyber attack against the alliance or against an individual nation in the alliance. I think we need to continue to be very concerned about transnational terrorist organizations, violent extremist organizations. Thirdly, I worry a lot about trafficking; about the moving of humans in slave-like conditions, about narcotics which are real epidemic throughout much of the world, and about the potential movement of weapons – conventional weapons and, God forbid, WMDs. So that trafficking concern is something the alliance needs to continue to address. Piracy is a bit of a part of this. All of these are attacks on the global commons, on our ability to work together. I think what the alliance fundamentally represents is the building of bridges. We learned in the 20th century that the building of walls for our security – the Berlin wall, the Iron Curtain, the bamboo curtain, the Maginot line, the Schlefin plan – all those walls failed us. What works is the building of bridges. The NATO alliance is a bridge. It connects these twenty-eight countries that represent half of the world’s gross domestic product. I think that the future is bright for the alliance, but we have to focus on these threats that attack the global commons.
How is “building bridges” connected to open source security?
What I call open source security is the idea that by working together we can address threats to the global commons. So no one of us is as smart as all of us working together. Look at Wikipedia – it’s an online compilation of the world’s knowledge that is built by everybody contributing, and everybody is allowed to withdraw from that. They’re vision statement is a world in which every human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge. I believe that alliances like NATO give us that connection, those bridges, that open source security that in the end will allow us to create the sum of all security. It’s about adding things together.