International organization at war: NATO practices in the Afghan campaign

Date01 December 2017
Published date01 December 2017
Cooperation and Conflict
2017, Vol. 52(4) 502 –518
© The Author(s) 2017
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DOI: 10.1177/0010836717701969
International organization at
war: NATO practices in the
Afghan campaign
Olivier Schmitt
This article investigates the NATO campaign in Afghanistan through a practice-based approach.
The structural distribution of power within NATO, which is obviously in favor of the US, does
not automatically lead to Washington’s desired outcomes, and US delegates must competently
perform a certain number of practices for their power advantage to take its full effect. The
article also illustrates how looking at practices helps to explain policy decisions, such as NATO’s
decision to engage in Afghanistan, the establishment of an International Security and Assistance
Force (ISAF) strategy and the wording of policy papers. By studying a case of military diplomacy,
the article contributes to the emerging scholarship aimed at bridging the gap between diplomatic
studies and practice-based approaches to International Relations.
Afghanistan, coalition warfare, international practices, NATO
How did NATO manage the Afghan campaign? I argue that the ‘classical narrative’ of the
war in Afghanistan, which explains changes in strategy as an adjustment to shifting US
interests, does not explain fully the political dynamics at play within the International
Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) and NATO. The problem is not that the classical
narrative is wrong, but rather that it only tells a limited aspect of the story.
Most scholarship on the Afghan War has focused on strategic debates such as the util-
ity and effectiveness of a counter-insurgency (COIN) approach or the soundness of the
strategic conceptions behind the overall campaign (Bird and Marshall, 2011; Farrell and
Chaudhuri, 2011). Research on multilateral war fighting in Afghanistan observes that US
reliance on coalition partners grew over time, and explains this change by considering
three factors: the government structure and party politics of NATO allies or principal
agent problems (Auerswald and Saideman, 2014); the larger time horizon of the US,
Corresponding author:
Olivier Schmitt, Center for War Studies, University of Southern Denmark, Campusvej 55, 5230 Odense M,
701969CAC0010.1177/0010836717701969Cooperation and ConflictSchmitt
Schmitt 503
which had, therefore, more incentives to seek multilateral cooperation (Kreps, 2012);
and the evolution of the way institutional design facilitates multinational military coop-
eration (Weitsman, 2013). However, few of these studies explain and illustrate how these
incentives are translated into actual social dynamics and, thus, lead to outcomes. They
often take for granted a linear relation between states’ preferences, power distribution
and political outcomes. In short, little is known about NATO’s management of the
Afghan War. By this, I do not mean the tactical and operational dimension of the conduct
of the military campaign by the ISAF, which is the subject of much analysis; instead, I
mean the study of the social processes surrounding the political management of the cam-
paign at NATO headquarters (HQ) and in country capitals.
As members of an international organization, NATO allies transact their business in
particular ways, and those ways shape outcomes. Specifically, I study the nature of
NATO–ISAF’s policy-making through a practice-based approach. How do allies agree or
disagree on political decisions, and how does the specific social context within NATO
influence such political events? This article analyzes the extent to which the conduct of
the Afghan War is influenced by routine decision-making and procedural, linguistic and
spatial practices at NATO HQ, and illustrates the way practices shape the construction
of the international security agenda. As such, this article contributes to the emerging
scholarship aimed at bridging the gap between diplomatic studies and practice-based
approaches to International Relations (Pouliot and Cornut, 2015; Sending et al., 2015)
by studying a case of military diplomacy (Bicchi and Bremberg, 2016; Bueger, 2013;
Mérand and Rayroux, 2016).
Studying NATO policy-making in the Afghan War: The
practices of campaign management
The emergence of practices as a research agenda
Adler and Pouliot define practices as ‘socially meaningful patterns of action which, in
being performed more or less competently, simultaneously embody, act out, and possibly
reify background knowledge and discourse in and on the material world’ (2011a: 6).
Practices have four main characteristics: they are a performance, are patterned, are inter-
preted along similar standards by groups of individuals and weave together the discur-
sive and material world. Surveys of this field identify a number of different traditions of
practice-based research (Bueger and Gadinger, 2014; Pouliot and Cornut, 2015), but
there is a common basic understanding of practices as socially meaningful patterns of
activities. This article does not attempt to weigh in on the debate by following one school
or another. Instead, it uses practices as a ‘sensitizing concept’ (Bueger and Gadinger,
2014: 78) for analyzing concrete empirical phenomena.
Practices can be considered as explanandum or as explanans – as the result of some
driving force or as a mechanism of social transformation. In this article, I document cases
of both situations: I refer to cases of practices resulting from previous social dynamics
(explanandum), but I also illustrate how practices made possible some political outcomes
that would have been otherwise impossible (explanans). As explanans, practices can trig-
ger change in three areas: ‘subjectivities (e.g. preferences, dispositions, or intentionality),

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