Twenty years on: Afghanistan and NATO

“The merit of all things lies in their difficulty”

Alexandre Dumas


Stefano Stefanini and Julian Lindley-French

‘You had the watches, we had the time’?

Ominously and tragically, May 8th’s ghastly massacre of schoolgirls at the Sayed Ul-Shuhada High School has nothing to do with ‘foreign troops’ and everything to do with the Taliban signalling their determination to roll back the social gains made by the Afghan population, especially women, in the last twenty years of foreign presence. Given the implications, whether or not the Taliban carried out the attack is scarcely relevant because it fits into a sadly all too familiar pattern of targeting civilians to terrorize them and undermine support for the Kabul government.  The attack also begs two critical questions. First, is Afghanistan’s future doomed to be a repeat of its violent and tragic past?  Second, will the future of Afghanistan also be the yardstick the future Alliance will be measured against?

The Taliban like to say that whilst the West had all the watches, i.e. the technology, they had the time.  All they had to do was wait and the US and its allies would lose strategic patience and leave Afghanistan.  The dust has still to settle on President Biden’s recent decision to withdraw from Afghanistan twenty years on 911 and the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington. Not surprisingly, the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan was unsurprisingly upheld at NATO’s April 14th “jumbo” Ministerial.  The Kommentariat have been predictable in their predictions of a now doomed Afghanistan and if such commentaries are to be believed the Taliban will soon have both the time and the watches to re-conquer Afghanistan. However, drawing up a balance sheet now on the Atlantic Alliance’s twenty-year long commitment to the Hindu Kush is premature. Therefore, assuming that the withdrawal of the Coalition takes place in reasonable good order and the Taliban resists the temptation to try and give it the appearance of a rout, the overarching question of what post-NATO Afghanistan will be like will remain unanswered for some time. That is a big ‘if’. Over the past week the Taliban launched several attacks on Afghan forces. 

More than 3,500 military and other personnel from thirty one countries paid the ultimate price and yet the Allied commitment to Afghanistan held, usually with parliamentary support and without any significant backlash from public opinion.  Indeed, the decision to withdraw has more to do with US policy than mission fatigue. Indeed, the European Allies were prepared to stay on in Afghanistan in support of the non-combat Resolute Support Mission (RSM). However, the Trump and Biden administrations both concluded it was time to terminate the counter-terrorism and stabilisation and reconstruction campaigns, in the face of contrarian advice from several military and intelligence agencies. President Biden made it clear that whilst he is aware of the military arguments against the withdrawal, he believes that there is an overwhelming political and geopolitical rationale in favour of doing so. With the US the reason for NATO being in Afghanistan in the first place, as well as the country that has borne a disproportionate burden in terms of blood and treasure, once Washington decided to quit it was natural the other Allies would follow.  

Four AFG questions

The decision to withdraw also raises four specific questions that also need to be tackled while remembering, and paying tribute to, the men and women who served in Afghanistan and recognising the remarkable solidarity shown by Allies and partners alike. [1] What did NATO achieve and what did it not achieve in Afghanistan?  Did the Taliban defeat NATO?  Why withdraw now and is there a wider strategic/geopolitical rationale behind Biden’s decision to leave Afghanistan?  If so, where does the implied new strategic ‘vision’ leave counterinsurgency (COIN) and counterterrorism (CT)?

What did NATO achieve and not achieve in Afghanistan?

Any such assessment immediately faces a profound difficulty because NATO never defined an end goal. At the ministerial the Allies were informed by Antony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, that the basic campaign goal of degrading and uprooting Al Qaeda and other terrorist organisations had been achieved. However, that important but relatively narrow goal, one which was originally set by President Obama in 2009, had always been part of a broader campaign design that included counterinsurgency operations, support for the democratically-elected Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIROA), nation and capacity-building, and promoting wider regional stability. Given the Alliance’s complex aims NATO’s scorecard should thus be broken down into three categories each of which has a very different level of achievement.  

Counter-terrorism: by helping to defeat and uproot terrorism in Afghanistan, both Al Qaeda and Daesh, and in partnership with the US Operation Enduring Freedom, NATO can claim ‘mission accomplished’, not least because the Taliban seem to have learned an important lesson and are for the moment committed to ensure Afghanistan never again becomes a terrorist safe haven. 

Counterinsurgency: NATO failed to defeat the Taliban insurgency or pacify Afghanistan, even at the peak of the so-called ‘surge’ between 2010 and 2011. In military terms, the best that can be said for the outcome is that it is a draw, although that assessment could change if Afghanistan descends quickly into renewed chaos.

Nation-building: with regard to building up resilient and enduring national Afghan institutions and a legitimate and effective GIROA the results are at best mixed.  The aim was to develop self-sustaining Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) (both Afghan National Army (ANA) and police), improve human rights, support civil society, promote women’s rights and education, as well as establish more effective governance and rule of law across the Pashtun, Hazara and Tadjik homelands beyond Kabul.  It is hardly surprising the results are mixed given the sheer complexity of the campaign, and the need to coordinate efforts with the UN, EU and a broad coalition of nations. Whilst the Alliance did much of the heavy-lifting and can be proud of its overall engagement, it failed to curb corruption and drugs trafficking. That will have consequences for the future stability of Afghanistan. Critically, the withdrawal will undoubtedly jeopardise much of the progress that has been made on human rights, the status of women in society, as well as basic freedoms.

In other words, whilst NATO achieved a great deal in Afghanistan the Alliance fell short of “winning”, even though history would suggest the very idea of ‘winning’ is not one foreign powers are advised to take with them into the Hindu Kush. Moreover, much of the good work that has been done could be quickly if the Taliban succeed in unconditionally returning to power and/or if the country falls back into warlord infused chaos and regional proxy wars at the behest of China, India, Iran, Pakistan and Russia. There must also be renewed uncertainty about the future role of Afghanistan as a possible haven for terrorist groups. Al Qaeda and Daesh have been dislodged, but they could still come back and again only time will tell. Lastly, even if terrorist groups fail to re-establish bases in a Taliban ruled or chaos prone Afghanistan people could well vote with their feet and flee across borders into neighbouring countries, aided by human traffickers. In such circumstances, existing refugee flows into Europe could easily again turn into a new migration surge. This would not only be destabilising for Afghanistan’s neighbours, most notably Pakistan, it would also reinforce immigration fatigue and fears in both America and Europe.   

Did the Taliban defeat NATO?

That will certainly be the Taliban narrative in the coming months, and one which the US and NATO should be keen to dispel.  Much will depend on the Alliance’s demonstrable ability to withdraw in full order, rather than what appears to be a hasty rout.  Indeed, the conditions under which NATO troops leave the country may help partially counter any perception that the Alliance “lost” in Afghanistan. Equally, nothing will change NATO’s bottom line which the Taliban and others will be only too keen to capitalise on: NATO was forced to withdraw, just as the Soviets were in 1989 and the British did so before them between 1947 and 1950. Consequently, NATO’s pending withdrawal will doubtless feed the long-held mantra that Afghanistan is the “graveyard of empires”.   

For NATO the beginning of the end began with the approach Trump administration adopted to negotiations with the Taliban. From the beginning of the talks Washington refused to the make the withdrawal “conditions based”, which at times made the negotiations look like a form of complex unconditional surrender, something the Taliban were only too keen to exploit. The Biden administration has already made some adjustments to both the timeline and the narrative, even briefly postponing the deadline for talks, but it has not changed the prevailing assumption in Washington that it is time for the Americans to get out. The Taliban has thus been able to maintain a cavalier attitude towards any proposed political process, both national and regional, because as far as they are concerned they have won. 

Only time will tell if they have and that the interests of the Taliban and the Pashtun are sufficiently aligned to enable the former to ride a withdrawal wave and take Kabul? Or, that Afghanistan is on the verge of another ghastly civil war similar to that which created the conditions for Al Qaeda and Daesh to exploit prior to 2001.  In the near term, the Alliance’s (and Washington’s) nightmare is a Kabul that turns into another Saigon 1975 as the last remaining Allied personnel are forced to make a panicked departure as the Taliban takes over. If, as seems quite likely, protracted territorial fracturing and infighting ensues in which no one ‘power’ emerges who can claim to control the country three dynamic factors will be at play: Kabul’s stronger conventional military capabilities versus the Taliban’s superior asymmetric tactics; continuing assistance from both the US and some Allies to the Kabul government in an effort to beef up its capabilities (after all, there is still the NATO-Afghanistan partnership); continued two track negotiating processes underway between the Taliban and Kabul, as well as with the other regional powers under the auspices of the Istanbul Conference.  Unfortunately, the signs are not good as the Taliban repeatedly threaten to desert the Istanbul meeting and show little interest in a national power sharing agreement that will be critical to any future peace. Posturing or hubris?

Why withdraw now and is there a wider strategic/geopolitical rationale behind Biden’s decision to leave Afghanistan?

The short answer to the second part of a complex composite question is “yes but…” President Biden when announcing the withdrawal said that there will be never a good moment for withdrawing so the US might as well do it now. Moreover, if Washington postpones the withdrawal, Biden argued, no matter for how short or long a time, the US will sooner or later face exactly against the same “this is not a good moment” accusation. In other words, Biden believes that beyond what has already been achieved, especially by the counterterrorism effort, the Afghanistan stalemate simply cannot be broken.  Interestingly, the US position differs markedly from that of the nineteenth century British who deliberately exploited such a stalemate to keep the Russians out at the time of the Great Game. China? 

However, there is a more pressing strategic imperative. First, for the Americans their Afghanistan effort has become disproportionate to the purpose it was meant to achieve, just when Washington must also confront the military rise of China and the resurgence of Russia.  Second, if the challenge of Great Powers and other state actors, such as Iran, is now the priority for the Americans the US can no longer afford to be ‘distracted’ by a resource and policy-draining seemingly interminable campaign in Afghanistan. Some in the Administration believe that whilst there is an undoubted risk of a Taliban take over the failure of GIROA, and eventually a new terrorist safe haven, Afghanistan would not be unique. There are already potential terrorist safe havens in Somalia, Mali, Nigeria and Yemen and they can be better dealt with by more tailored responses given progress in understanding such insurgencies and how to deal with them without the need for large-scale and extended expeditionary campaigning.

In other words, twenty years after 911 its influence on US policy whilst still evident has definitely waned.  In effect, Washington’s policy has gone full circle with the US having returned to a posture of leaving the fight against terrorism to a mix of targeted counterterrorism rather than extended expeditions allied to a willingness to live with failed States. Incidentally, such a shift in posture casts into history President Trump’s assertion that “NATO is obsolete because it doesn’t fight terrorism”.

Where does this new strategic “vision” leave counterinsurgency (COIN) and counterterrorism (CT)?

It is this question that is perhaps the most pressing for the Alliance. NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan fits somewhat neatly into an emerging Western world-view that international terrorism and its Salafist-fundamentalist roots whilst still there must now play second fiddle to a more traditional concept of geopolitics.  Or, to put it another way, the worry now is China, Daesh can be dealt with on an as and when basis. Consequently, the once dominant focus on COIN will now be side-lined (along with its myriad experts) whilst counterterrorism will only be carried out as a form of strategic background noise to a renewed emphasis on high-end warfare and its deterrence.  Mistake?

In adopting such a posture the US is undoubtedly taking a two-fold risk, and it is only to be hoped there is some calculation behind it. The first risk is Afghanistan itself. Washington believes that either Afghanistan will not return to Taliban absolutism and barbarism or that, once back in power, the Taliban will not again allow terrorist organisations to settle in or plan attacks against America. The second calculation is that the terrorist threat can be countered at a distance through proxies and allies. For NATO this implies an American vision for ‘burden sharing’ that will be more than simply an issue of financial cost, but also tasks, risks and responsibilities. Moreover, with the British following the Americans back onto to the military ‘uplands’ of high-end deterrence and defence that begs other questions. For example, will the Europeans really ‘take care’ of their North African backyard, as France is doing (to a point) in Mali and Italy should do in Libya? 

Twenty years after: Afghanistan and NATO 

Twenty years after 911 and NATO’s entry into Afghanistan the change in US threat assessment and priorities has one further and possibly enormous implication for NATO. If Afghanistan is no longer relevant, or significantly less so, would the Balkans also be less relevant in American thinking if conflict should again break out there in? What about other local and regional theatres that over the past three decades have been deemed sufficiently threatening to justify extended non-Article 5 operations? Plainly, there cannot be a one-size fits all approach to crises, as each crisis has its own very specific characteristics, constraints and thus rationale for intervention or non-intervention. However, the emerging US worldview that led to the decision to withdraw abruptly from Afghanistan will doubtless also lead NATO towards a renewed focus on its core business of high-end deterrence and defence at the expense of what Washington now deems as peripheral commitments. In the medium-long term will the withdrawal from Afghanistan constrain the Allied footprint in Kosovo and Iraq? 

President Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan is genuinely strategic because implicit therein is a fundamental American reassessment of the international security environment.  For NATO, the consequences cannot be over-stated for when Washington sneezes it is usually the Alliance that catches a cold and America’s change in thinking will doubtless be reflected in NATO’s upcoming strategic concept a year hence. Great powers and state actors are indeed again the main actors in the theatre of geopolitics, which perhaps begs the biggest questions of all: as Europe emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic will it be economically able and politically willing to follow the American shift back to the high end?  If not, what about the sea of instability to Europe’s south and the insurgencies and terrorism that continue to boil and fester therein? 

Afghanistan? To simply abandon Afghanistan because it is all too complicated and/or because the West simply did not have sufficient strategic patience will certainly return Afghanistan’s future to the pit of a violent past.  The Taliban need to be in no doubt that their dream of a status quo ante is simply not an option.  The question then becomes how? After all, the thing about watches is that they tell the time and only time will tell…

Stefano Stefanini and Julian Lindley-French

Ambassador (Ret.) Stefano Stefanini is a former Permanent Representative of Italy to the North Atlantic Council and Brussels Director of Project Associates. Professor Julian Lindley-French has just published Future War and the Defence of Europe for Oxford University Press. They are both members of The Alphen Group.