Assessing John Kerry’s Claims About Our Allies

As a hallmark of his campaign for the presidency, Sen. John Kerry has frequently argued that he would restore America’s alliances and its image in the world. Among its other benefits, Kerry alleges that this approach would help American forces in Iraq by creating a likelihood of greater international military assistance. In recent days, Kerry has gone so far as to forecast significant U.S. troop reductions within a year if he becomes president.

Are these claims about more allied military burden-sharing realistic?

Anyone expecting that our foreign friends and security partners could take over the bulk of the Iraq mission for us will be sorely disappointed. Western countries do not have enough available and deployable troops; the high demands of the Iraq operation require greater proficiency than many other countries’ armed forces can attain.

So if “significant reductions” are interpreted to mean that our allies could largely bail us out of the fire in Iraq, there is little hope.

But with the more realistic, and still meaningful, standard of getting 20,000 more western troops to help in Iraq (and/or Afghanistan), Kerry may well be right.

Many of our allies have spent recent weeks and months insisting that their militaries, like ours, are overstretched by existing deployments.

But if they decide it is truly in their national interest to help the United States in Iraq, or at least in Afghanistan for those unwilling to put troops in Iraq, a number could certainly find the capacity to do more. There are three main reasons why.

  • First, they’ve done it before. In 1999 and 2000, our major western allies deployed more forces abroad to difficult missions than they have of late. Specifically, they had some 60,000 troops in Kosovo, Bosnia, East Timor, Sierra Leone and elsewhere. Today, even counting smaller missions in Haiti, Congo, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Ethiopia/Eritrea and elsewhere, the total is closer to 50,000. Specifically, America’s major allies have about 20,000 soldiers in Iraq, another 20,000 in the Balkans, 5,000 in Afghanistan and about 5,000 in smaller UN operations.

  • Second, since 2000, European countries have been committed to achieve their “headline goals” for being able to deploy and sustain some 65,000 forces overseas. While some countries continue to fall short of their individual objectives, others—notably Britain—clearly exceed theirs.

    And that 65,000 figure does not even include several key allies, notably Turkey, Australia, Canada and South Korea. So if the headline goals have any meaning whatsoever, America’s major western allies as a whole should be capable of deploying at least 75,000 troops abroad.

  • Third, a detailed examination of the force structures and transportation capabilities of our major allies shows that, while most are indeed contributing a relatively high fraction of their total available capacity to global security missions, they have some capacity to spare. Admittedly, it might be difficult to reach their theoretical maximum capabilities. As with American forces, doing so might require temporarily overworking some troops, and scaling back some longstanding missions at least temporarily to free up others. But if the political will is there, this should be eminently feasible.

For example, a conservative estimate of Britain’s maximum deployable military forces is about 25,000 troops. Some 15,000 are deployed on critical missions around the world today, suggesting that—at least under emergency conditions—another 10,000 might be available.

Similarly, not even counting forces stationed on its territories or as part of longstanding security cooperation arrangements, France possesses perhaps 15,000 deployable forces, of which 10,000 are presently committed. That means some 5,000 could be found, one way or another, if Paris decided to make the matter a priority. Those who doubt these numbers need only remember that British planners envisioned sending more than 30,000 troops for the invasion of Iraq if necessary, and before the breakdown in U.S.-French relations on the issue, France’s ministry of defense was examining means to send 20,000.

There are other examples as well. Germany has roughly 10,000 deployable forces, of which about 7,000 are now deployed; Canada and Netherlands, each with about 4,000 deployable forces, each could spare another 1,000; Australia could likely find a couple thousand more.

Altogether, the western alliance system could find approximately another 25,000 troops to deploy—if the governments in question were prepared to ask their troops for further sacrifices, take some modest risks elsewhere, and in general make it a political priority. Even those countries sworn not to deploy troops to Iraq might be prepared to send more to Afghanistan, where security remains poor and where President Hamid Karzai has rated his country’s overall progress since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001 as deserving no more than a grade of D.

A Kerry administration could probably find more allied help in Iraq on other matters too, such as greater economic aid to the new government and increased military training. But on the immediate question of military burden-sharing, even if our main security partners could not—and likely would not—go the extra mile in Iraq on our behalf, there is a good deal more that could be asked and expected of them.