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Comparing Caveats: Understanding the Sources of National Restrictions upon NATO’s Mission in Afghanistan


  • Authors’ notes: The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council has funded much of this project as has the Canada Research Chair program, including the very helpful research assistance of Bronwen De Sena, Sarah-Myriam Martin-Brûlé, Jenyfer Maisonneuve, Mark Mattner, Ora Szekely, and Lauren Van Den Berg. Portions of this research were funded by the US Department of Defense. We owe a great many debts to people in Canada, the United States, France, and Germany for helping to set up and participate in interviews. We are very grateful for feedback we received when we presented earlier versions of this paper at Queen’s University, London’s Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, Canada’s Department of National Defence’s Security and Defence Forum, the University of Ottawa, Berlin’s Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, the Canadian Political Science Association meeting in Vancouver, the International Studies Association meeting in San Francisco and New Orleans, and the American Political Science Association meetings in Chicago and Toronto. Richard Boucher, Rob Brown, Sarah Kreps, Mark Mattner, Victoria Nuland, Otto Trønnes, Michael Tierney, and William Wood, provided useful comments along the way. Errors are those of the authors. The views expressed here are those of the authors and not the National War College, the National Defense University, the US Department of Defense, any other agency of the US government, nor the Canadian Department of National Defence.


The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is the most robust and deeply institutionalized alliance in the modern world, yet it has faced significant problems in running the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. Specifically, the coalition effort has been plagued by caveats: restrictions on what coalition militaries can and cannot do. Caveats have diminished the alliance’s overall effectiveness and created resentment within the coalition. In this article, we explain why ISAF countries have employed a variety of caveats in Afghanistan, focusing on the period from 2003 to 2009. Caveats vary predictably according to the political institutions in each contributor to ISAF. Troops from coalition governments are likely to have caveats. Troops from presidential or majoritarian parliamentary governments tend, on average, to have fewer caveats, but specific caveats depend on the background of key decision makers in those countries. To demonstrate these points, we first review key limitations facing military contingents in Afghanistan. We then compare the experiences of Canada, France, and Germany and find that our institutional model does a better job of explaining the observed behavior than do competing explanations focusing on public opinion, threat, or strategic culture. We conclude with implications for both research and North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s future.