PREMIUM TAG BLOG: – The West’s Airborne Retreat from Kabul: A Short Survey of Resultant Alliance Dilemmas

By Paul Schulte

The rapid Islamist conquest of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, an internationally recognised state and “de facto NATO protectorate”, just before the looming anniversary of 9/11, is a transfixing event whose overall significance for the Alliance will only emerge – or be negotiated – over time. 

History suggests immediate reactions will prove exaggerated, and the imperatives of underlying common interests will predominate. Indeed, rationally, the refocused capabilities of a less distracted America shouldstrengthen deterrence extended to allies. That is not what is being felt at present. Anxieties over devalued US credibility, and abandonment have been raised by some European leaders. Commentators complain that US operational decisions and speeches this autumn, and the postulated “Biden Doctrine”, consciously narrowing core American national interests, indicate the future subordination of Allied and partner concerns to US domestic politics. American officials and others reject the substance of these complaints and question the unity, financial realism and strategic seriousness behind resultant calls for greater European Strategic Autonomy. Sceptics can accurately point to the continuing absence of concrete proposals which would (expensively) expand and rebalance capabilities across the Atlantic to reduce dependent European free riding. But the tensions revealed by invocations of autonomy will not disappear.

The Alliance now faces numerous entwined immediate dilemmas. 

Concerting Responses to the new Islamic Emirate: most urgently over release of funds, delivery of humanitarian aid and recognition of the Taliban regime, during an economic collapse induced by long drought and war. What should be done, by who, to mitigate or receive destabilising refugee flows? What conditionalities should – or can- the West impose over democratic freedoms, political inclusion, drugs, civilian freedom to emigrate, and Human, especially Women’s, Rights? What should be done if a new civil war of resistance to the Taliban develops? How does NATO’s agenda overlap, or conflict, with the EU and UN in all this?

Learning Lessons and Managing Recrimination: Culpability for the accelerating defeat in Afghanistan is a potentially toxic political football within and between allied states. Flows of accusatory interviews and memoirs have begun a blame game. Alliance publics will expect steps to improve NATO’s interventionary realism and operational competence. High profile diagnostic inquiries and lessons- learned exercises will be demanded. But lists of alleged campaign failures are extensive, depressing and often invidious. Accurately attributing, (and then, probably divisively, disputing) causes of defeat in a long, complex, mutating intervention could also undermine confidence in any future forceful Western CT responses, politically constraining freedom of action.

Responding to intensified domestic and international terrorism. Afghanistan has boosted Jihadi morale as a major success, gloatingly amplified by Islamist media. To respond adequately, NATO will need to coordinate with EU and national aid and development plans around its periphery. Renouncing “nation building” need not end support for partner militaries in some of those areas, like North and East Africa, at severe- or even desperate – risk of becoming Jihadi proto states. Here there is a shortage of NATO allies willing to hazard troops in active roles, such as “operational advice and assist”, with inevitable risk of casualties.

Maintaining cohesion. Allied cooperation and intelligence sharing will remain vital, but the domestic politics of counterterrorism could throw up obstacles to concerted overall strategy. President Biden has warned of continuing “Over the Horizon Warfare” against ISIS, and other transnational terrorist groups in Afghanistan after US withdrawal – even though legally no longer an area of active conflict. The Taliban have vehemently denounced this. Among certain European allies there will be further legal challenges to national intelligence support for such operations, part of opposition to “Remote Warfare”, portrayed as an inhumane, illegal continuation of a failed Forever War, inevitably provoking blowback with still further significant increases in overall terrorist numbers and activity. Wholeheartedly supporting kinetic American CT strategies may become more problematic for some Allies.

The overall background question is whether NATO can now expect only to limit the damage to Alliance security, cohesion, and confidence through available collective responses. Or could the long foreseen, but still shockingly rushed, withdrawal from Afghanistan provide sufficient impetus to build overall effectiveness in CT, and eventually enhance public trust, resilience, and strategic patience?