The Royal Marines have hauled down their flag in Basra; this doesn’t mark the end of the British presence in Iraq, but more the beginning of the end, or, even more accurately, the end of the beginning of the end of the end. Most of them will be out by July, leaving only a small contingent to train the Iraqi army and add tone to what would otherwise be a mere vulgar brawl. The Romanians, the only other major European troop contingent still in Iraq (about 300 strong), will be gone by July too. By August, the only European soldiers left will be trainers – either British, Romanian, or the handfuls of others operating under the Nato training mission.
Though most of the summitry going on this week in London and elsewhere will be focussing on economics, the final end (more or less) of European involvement in Iraq is a good time to ask which direction the continent’s various militaries should be taking.
At this point it’s customary to mention the ‘whither Nato’ debates, the dogged attempts of the EU’s core states on each side of the Rhine to set up some sort of European force (currently down from a target of 60,000 to 1,500 – maybe) and all the rest of the European defence issues that have been chewed over since, approximately, 1989, or maybe even 1945.
But this is the wrong approach to take. Operationally speaking, institutions and treaties don’t matter. Governments will commit troops in strength, in token numbers or not at all depending on a lot of factors, but institutional commitments are not among them – if you think a deployment to Kabul is a good thing, you’ll do it regardless of whether or not it comes under a Nato or a UN or an EU banner, or just as part of a Coalition of the Willing. The best thing that institutions do – and this is very important – is to ensure common rules, not common actions. Nato nations work well together because they’ve all trained and equipped the same way. Nato’s role as a sort of European Military Standards Agency is far more important than its role as a common defence organisation – it’s about common means, not common ends, which are much better dealt with by ad hoc alliances of nations that a) are most affected b) can be bothered and c) have the ability to act.
The ends, meanwhile, should be the subject of some serious thought. Europe is in a lucky situation right now (as is the US, for that matter) – the EU’s member states need fear no armed attack or invasion from their neighbours. What does that leave for the millions of Europeans under arms to do?
There is, of course, the unfinished business of the breakup of the Ottoman Empire – KFOR and EUFOR Althea are still in place in Kosovo and Bosnia, each still thousands-strong. Cyprus is a smaller commitment, and currently the international force there is UN-run, but it’s not impossible that a European-flagged presence might turn up there sooner or later. All of these have obvious justifications – they’re in or next to EU member states. But these are all minor and hopefully dwindling commitments, really closer to gendarmerie-level, and it’s difficult to see where else in Europe something like that might be needed.
Other possible missions – all attempted or prepared for in the recent past – include peacekeeping, training and rebuilding in recently-democratised states further afield, hunting pirates in the Arabian Sea, evacuating civilians from Freetown, propping up minor dictators in West Africa, fighting off the Russians, and attempting to mediate clan disputes in the foothills of the Hindu Kush. This is not the behaviour of a continent that has a very clear idea of what to do with its military.
Over to comments: where are European troops likely to be over the next decade, doing what; and what should they be doing, where and why?