The NATO Strategic Concept and Protection of Civilians

Friendly face: a NATO ISAF soldier greets civilians in Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan. Image: Agencja Fotograficzna Caro / Alamy

As NATO re-examines its strategy and tactics in response to the changing security environment, it must prioritise strengthening its approach to civilian protection.

At the end of this month, NATO leaders will adopt a new Strategic Concept. Unlike the 2010 one, the 2022 iteration will need to reflect an environment shaped by uncertainty, continued instability, and a return of the spectre of great power conflict. The goal of expanding NATO’s zone of security has given way to defending a European country from aggression, and crisis management, anti-terrorist operations and security force assistance compete with the potential escalation of conflict into NATO’s territory in Europe. The changing security environment has prompted some re-examination of the Alliance’s strategy and tactics, focusing mostly on new challenges in Europe.

These debates, however, focus mostly on purely military aspects of NATO’s force posture and preparedness. The Baltic countries have called for a political and practical commitment to defending all of NATO’s territory, while experts consider the wisdom of Cold War defence postures and reliance on tripwire forces. Mostly missing from the wider debate (with some exceptions), though, is one key question: what role are civilians likely to play in a conflict, how will they be impacted, and how should NATO forces interact with and protect them?

Civilians tend to pay a very high price for conflict: the UN estimates that about 100 civilians die in armed conflicts daily, and many more are likely to suffer reverberating costs due to destruction of infrastructure, displacement, and a lack of access to basic needs. The risks are especially high in urban areas, where the impact of explosive weapons is multiplied and the difficulty of telling combatant from civilian magnified. Protecting civilians in conflicts is an ethical imperative and a legal obligation. But it should also be seen as a strategic necessity and a key condition for increased resilience, successful defence and effective operations. Experience from the 2022 war on Ukraine and from the war in Syria suggests that in addition to mitigating harm coming from a force’s own operations, armed forces in conflict environments need to be prepared to protect civilians from the actions of others, especially when facing an adversary that makes no effort to avoid harm. This requires an in-depth understanding of what protection means and requires, and a suite of capabilities and processes to support it.

Protection Comes Home: Understanding Civilians

To protect civilians, armed forces need to understand their situation and responses in the first place. The trends in civilian harm seen during the Ukraine war, including targeting of civilians, clearly illustrate the challenges that are likely to come to the fore in a potential European conflict. Direct casualties would be accompanied by massive displacements, both internal and cross-border; movement on such a scale would impact military operations and mobility. Destruction of cities and civilian infrastructure, exacerbated by attacks on dangerous sites (such as fuel storage and nuclear power plants), would create additional long-term risks to life and health. Hybrid warfare – the battle of narratives and manipulation of potentially lifesaving information, for example on evacuation routes – could lead not only to psychological, but increasingly to physical harm.

Protecting civilians in conflicts should be seen as a strategic necessity and a key condition for increased resilience, successful defence and effective operations

The war also shows that civilians can adopt a whole gamut of responses to conflict, including fleeing to safety; staying in their homes; joining territorial defence units; and organising themselves to provide humanitarian assistance, protect their communities, and in some cases provide support to the armed forces. Loyalties can be divided. These decisions, movements and activities affect military mobility and targeting; shape requirements to protect civilians from the actions of others; showcase the need to establish trusted civil-military communication channels; and stress the importance of protection from an adversary’s actions through early warnings and coordination of evacuations and the distribution of humanitarian assistance.

These considerations would be equally important in potential operations on NATO territory. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, long aware of their precarious position on NATO’s eastern flank, have adopted total defence postures – that is, the mobilisation of all national resources in order to repel or defeat an invading force. This includes active resistance and support to the armed forces from citizens. NATO forces assigned to support the Baltic states thus need to have a good understanding of how to interact with and protect civilians, contribute to increasing the countries’ resilience, support their own protection initiatives, and work with national minorities. They will need to be able to quickly deconflict humanitarian and military activities and be prepared to support – or at least not harm – local responders who will likely be crucial to mitigating the impact of war.

Is NATO Prepared?

NATO has a Protection of Civilians (PoC) policy, military concept, directive and handbook, and is overall not a newcomer to these issues. It recognises the importance of mitigating harm, protection from the actions of third parties, and facilitating access to basic needs. It has also adopted a shared approach to resilience, which, if implemented together with PoC, offers another way to strengthen protection measures. There are, however, two key question marks around the Alliance’s PoC preparedness. One is whether the mental leap required to apply protection work – with its origins in counterinsurgency operations and crisis management – to the Alliance’s Article 5 planning and preparedness, or to hybrid operations in Europe, has been made. The second question is the extent to which individual Allies have brought their PoC approaches in line with NATO’s, to ensure interoperability and a basic level of mutual understanding in multinational operations.

The forces on NATO’s eastern flank are something of a natural lab for operationalising PoC. To fully mainstream protection, three elements need to come together: understanding of PoC approaches of states in the region (including implications of total defence), PoC in expeditionary operations as applied by Allies contributing to Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP), and the mediating and interlocking role played by NATO structures, from Multinational Corps Northeast in Szczecin to EFP battlegroups and National Force Integration Units. Designing and testing protection approaches and effective civil-military cooperation procedures and understanding the implications of these policies for military operations is far from complete, however. Neither the protection of civilians nor the civil-military cooperation that enables it are pick-up games; they require standard operating procedures to guide them and regular education, exercises and training to make sure staff are comfortable using them.

Experience to date indicates that protection considerations can disappear from the list of operational and strategic priorities, despite evidence that they are needed

The Alliance has some tools that could conceivably be used to press for greater convergence on PoC. One is the set of requirements it produces for certifying national HQs and forces as NATO-ready; PoC-related requirements could easily be included. The certification requirements, however, only directly impact a small proportion of national militaries assigned to NATO duty. The National Defence Planning Process, which determines military needs and matches them with available capabilities, could track capabilities related to protection – from robust civil-military cooperation units to satellite and communications capabilities that could be used to obtain reliable pictures of civilian movements during a conflict. And the Graduated Response Plans, which specify which capabilities are to be mobilised in response to which threats, could include assets specifically directed to assess PoC requirements, thus prompting their development.

But for this to happen across the Alliance, the Strategic Concept needs to restate a strong political commitment to PoC, make clear it applies across NATO’s activities – from territorial defence to crisis management and security force assistance – and provide a strong mandate for implementation that can drive both NATO institutions and member states to operate on the same page. The Concept is in the end only as important as the work it precipitates. Its mandate, however, is needed, as experience to date indicates that protection considerations can disappear from the list of operational and strategic priorities, despite evidence that they are needed. Even with innovative measures adopted in Afghanistan – including a civilian harm tracking and mitigation cell providing the data needed to adapt procedures to prevent and mitigate harm that has helped bring down casualty levels – commitment to PoC seems to have faltered, with casualties rising again as the operational tempo increased. NATO’s security assistance missions, such as the NATO Mission in Iraq, should design their training, advice and support with their partners’ ability to protect civilians in mind, and push for partner forces to develop PoC tools.

For the civilians whose survival and wellbeing depend on NATO forces, the mandate contained in the Strategic Concept and the work it will prompt will be key. Following on a high-level political recognition of the importance of protection, NATO and individual countries need to dedicate resources and attention to implementing processes and approaches that can save lives and prepare Allies for more effective operations.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Karolina MacLachlan

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