On Cats and Coalitions

August 22, 2013

A couple years ago, an advertisement for a well-known management consulting company aired in the United States.  The scene: cowboys on the open plain, wrangling and herding their animals.  Amid the Arizona red rocks, tumbleweed, cacti, and rattlesnakes, the ranchers explained the ultimate difficulty of their job – getting the whole herd to move in the same direction. And it was especially difficult given that they weren’t herding cattle – they were herding cats.


As of today, there are 49 nations involved in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.  Much like the cats in the commercial, each nation has its own mind and motivations; its own perspective, risk tolerance, strengths, weaknesses, doctrine, training, logistics, and so on.  Building these different military forces into a coherent whole is challenging enough; the very real policy and political differences between coalition partners adds another order of magnitude’s worth of complexity to the task.  Unsurprisingly, orchestrating different nation’s contributions and synchronizing them to achieve effects on the ground is extremely difficult.  One therefore imagines that the ISAF commander must feel a lot like he’s herding cats most of the time.

One example of policy differences between coalition members having operational impact: national caveats.  Caveats are those conditions under which a nation agrees to contribute its forces to a multilateral military operation (for a rich discussion on caveats, see Auerswald and Saideman’s forthcoming book), and can restrict types of operations, geographic areas in which a force can operate, and so on.   Since caveats differ from nation to nation – and are communicated both formally and informally to NATO commanders – they can seriously hamper the ability of a battlefield commander to plan and execute operations.  Caveats therefore require extremely careful management; otherwise they can compromise tactical or operational successes.  It’s no wonder that NATO commanders have argued for their elimination.

Another obstacle to effective ‘herding’: strategic-level differences of opinion on what type of mission is actually being prosecuted. Again, Afghanistan provides a useful example: until late 2009 there was a vibrant debate among NATO ISAF partners as to whether the mission was one requiring a “counterinsurgency” or a “comprehensive approach” strategy.  One is, of course, tempted to see this as a case of “potato, po-tah-to.”  Both, after all, pertain to the delivery of synchronized security, development and governance effects on the ground. And one might wonder if every strategy should be both “comprehensive” and an “approach.”  But when it comes to strategic guidance, words and labels matter.  Characterizing the mission in one way over another translates into different types of roles and authorities being given to military forces.  The practical upshot: many of those nations favoring “comprehensive approach” were deeply uncomfortable with NATO ISAF troops performing non-traditional military missions.   This translated into somewhat restricted guidance on tasks such as police training and counter-narcotics – both issues that were deemed essential to making progress in Afghanistan.

It was hard enough for the United States to unify and synchronize its military (much less its civilian-military) efforts on the ground in Afghanistan.  Synchronizing the activities of 49 nations – each with their own perspective on strategy, operations and tactics – is exponentially more difficult.  The sheer enormity of the task – “win” in Afghanistan while managing these multifaceted dynamics – makes one wonder how on earth our military commanders have been able to deliver any success at all.

Coalition warfare is really, really hard

For better or worse, coalition warfare is here to stay.  The overwhelming majority of post-Cold War interventions have been multilateral in character – if not in the initial invasion stage, then during the follow on stabilization phases.  All signs point to this trend continuing. Strategically, coalitions provide legitimacy for military interventions.  The U.S. National Security Strategy of 2010 argues, “When force is necessary, we will continue to do so in a way that reflects our values and strengthens our legitimacy, and we will seek broad international support, working with such institutions as NATO ant the U.N. Security Council.”  Fiscal realities also point to the continued desire to work through coalitions.  As nations on both sides of the Atlantic reduce their defense expenditures, the pooling and sharing of military assets among nations will become a more prominent feature in planning and operations.

But coalition partners will still have trouble agreeing on the nature and extent of a given threat on the security landscape.  One of the most famous historical examples of coalition warfare is  the Napoleonic Wars.  It was only after the allies finally agreed that Napoleon was an immediate and existential threat that nations in the coalition were willing to subordinate their own diverging visions of post-War Europe in favor of a common good.  And even then, political leaders regularly interfered with their battlefield commander’s activities.  By contrast, today’s coalitions tend to be formed to manage threats that are less-than-existential.  And if this is the case, true unity of command is likely to prove elusive.

Not all coalitions are created equal

Complicating matters further, coalitions are not “one size fits all.”  Their sizes and shapes of vary considerably.  Some are broadly multilateral, others are better described as “minilateral,” as they comprise only a few states.  And structures of coalitions vary: some are built through international organizations like the United Nations or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization; others are formed on an ad-hoc basis (a “coalition of the willing”).   In the past decade, the United States simultaneously operated through both NATO-led (Afghanistan) and ad-hoc (Iraq) coalitions.  What are the lessons we need to learn from operating in those different coalition constructs?  Improving our understanding of these dynamics can lead to better matches between military missions and the coalition structure utilized to prosecute operations.

From cats to cattle

In the future, if we want our theater commanders to spend less time herding cats and more time focused on the enemy, scholars and policymakers have a lot of homework to do.  We need to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of different coalition types.  Perhaps more importantly, we need to look across the force and identify ways to truly improve interoperability.  How should doctrine be augmented to better inform military forces on working with coalition partners?  What can be done to improve training?  What exercises (ground, sea and air) should be conducted to expose gaps and friction points between the U.S. and its partners?  What changes should be made to procurement strategies to improve interoperability?  All these dynamics and more deserve considerable scrutiny. Failure to appreciate the many facets of coalition warfare can compromise our very ability to achieve our own strategic objectives.


Kathleen J. McInnis is an Adjunct Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Research Consultant at the Royal Institute for International Affairs and an MPhil/PhD Candidate in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London.  McInnis co-founded Caerus Associates LLC and previously served as an Operations Director, NATO-Afghanistan in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (Policy). The views represented are her own.