Are All NATO Soldiers Created Equal?

Not if you expect them to fire.

NATO soldiers in Afghanistan

Europe will add 5,000 soldiers to its contingent in Afghanistan, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen announced Wednesday. It’s not yet clear, however, which European countries will send troops. Georgia, the former Soviet republic, may be the largest contributor. England, Poland, and Italy have also pledged support. Does it matter where troops come from? Are some nation’s soldiers better than others?

Yes. Troops from Britain and Canada receive better training than many of their European counterparts. Smaller countries—or countries with smaller military budgets—often can’t fund nearly as much target practice with live ammunition, and their war games are far less elaborate. British and Canadian equipment and tactics are also similar to ours, which makes it easier for them to integrate into a largely American-led operation. And, unlike other large European contributors, their home governments haven’t limited when, where, and under what conditions they can engage the enemy.

Soldiers from Germany and France are well-trained, but they operate under a series of restrictions or “caveats” instituted by their parliaments. Some caveats limit the areas where troops can operate, permitting enemies to retreat to safety when engaged. The most controversial caveat is a prohibition on the offensive use of lethal force. (That is, they can defend themselves, but they can’t attack.) Germany, which requires its soldiers to carry a card in their pockets explaining when they are permitted to fire, has received the most criticism on this particular rule. In 2008, German special forces had a Taliban commander in their sights. They weren’t allowed to fire unless their detachment was under active attack by a Taliban force—so instead of killing the target they retreated meekly. (The German restrictions are loosening, but the piecemeal changes have led to confusion.) All in all, NATO countries have imposed nearly 80 caveats on their soldiers.

Smaller countries, like Poland and Georgia, have placed few or no limitations on their troops’ operations. But their relatively small military budgets mean inferior equipment and training, which can hamper joint operations. Night combat is a particular issue. If soldiers from underfunded countries—whose night vision equipment is inferior to ours or even nonexistent—are participating in the attack, planners have to decide whether to equip and train the new soldiers, or to leave them behind. Even when these troops have identical equipment, they have less experience using it, because intensive training exercises increase maintenance and ammunition costs.

These limitations do not mean that the NATO forces from countries other than Britain and Canada aren’t useful—they are. In addition to their sometimes limited combat duties, many play crucial supporting roles like flying medevac helicopters, driving supply convoys, and standing night watch at headquarters. (Military planners estimate that 10 noncombat soldiers are required to support the operations of every one fighting soldier.) These kinds of operations are more conducive to international cooperation, anyway. While NATO’s founding documents require members to act “in concert” defensively, their battlefield tactics often differ greatly, rendering joint forces somewhat difficult to command. It’s much easier to take eight soldiers from Luxembourg and make them responsible for a shift guarding the Kabul air base than to bring them up to speed on Italian battlefield protocol.

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Explainer thanks Paul Cornish of Chatham House, Jean-Luc Marret of the Foundation for Strategic Research, and Rick “Ozzie” Nelson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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