August 17, 2021

Can NATO Survive the Afghanistan Debacle?

For the first time, the transatlantic alliance has lost a war. The trauma of that experience—and the sidelining of its European members—has big implications for NATO's future.

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A NATO helicopter lands at the Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan October 18, 2018.
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In early May, as European countries were waiting for an answer from US President Joe Biden on whether he would stick to the Afghanistan withdrawal timeline his predecessor Donald Trump had agreed with the Taliban, European Union foreign ministers met in Brussels to discuss the situation. From the meeting notes, it’s clear they weren’t happy.

There was a consensus that a cast-iron guarantee was needed from the Taliban of their commitment to a ceasefire and political solution before withdrawal could take place. They noted that the consequences of a hasty withdrawal would be felt more by Europe than by the United States, posing a “direct threat to European key security interests” and “triggering mass migration flows to Europe.”

Yet despite these misgivings, the Europeans felt completely powerless in the situation. Across the channel British politicians, who no longer have a seat at the EU foreign ministers council after Brexit, were privately expressing the same worries as their European counterparts, but were also helpless. So what action was decided in Brussels and London to respond to these grave concerns? Nothing. They simply waited to be instructed by President Biden on what they were all going to do. There is perhaps no more poignant and catastrophic illustration of the central problem confronting the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Two Firsts For NATO

The Afghanistan mission marks two firsts for the organization: the first time any country has invoked the Article 5 mutual defense obligation and, 20 years later, the first time NATO has lost a war. In 2001, President George W. Bush invoked the article three weeks after the September 11 attacks to require all NATO countries (19 at the time, 30 today) to come to America’s defense. It was legally dubious, considering the US had been attacked by a terrorist organization based in Afghanistan rather than by the Afghan government itself. But the command was unquestioningly obeyed, even by French President Jacques Chirac. The thinking at the time, according to current French President Emmanuel Macron in his address to the nation on Monday, was that Al Qaeda also posed a threat to France and needed to be eradicated.

Indeed, Al Qaeda was essentially eradicated, and within just a month’s time. But rather than ending the mission there, the Bush administration, packed with neoconservatives eager for foreign military adventures, decided to change the goal posts. A nation-building mission called International Security Assistance Force was created, with NATO members involved in military combat allied with Afghanistan’s new government fighting the ongoing Taliban insurgencies. In their speeches this week, Presidents Biden and Macron insisted that the Afghanistan goal was never nation-building. That is, of course, historical revisionism at its most obvious. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was more honest about what’s taken place over the past 20 years when she addressed the German public saying “everything else that has followed [the early destruction of Al Qaeda] has not been as successful and has not been achieved in the way that we had planned …you have to set smaller goals, I think, in such missions.”

With hindsight, it is striking that NATO’s European members unquestioningly went along with this mission creep from the Bush administration. Going back to the media coverage of the time, it is difficult to find European politicians speaking out against the Afghanistan goal posts being moved, even as France and Germany were refusing to allow the Bush administration’s next military adventure in Iraq to become a NATO mission in 2003. But it is important to remember that when these decisions were taken in 2001 and 2002, the United States was in hyper-nationalistic “you’re with us or against us” mode. It would seem that European NATO members felt powerless to do anything other than follow the US in its nation-building crusade. And 20 years later, those same NATO members felt powerless to do anything other than follow the US in its hasty retreat.

European Trauma

The resulting images of desperate people hanging on to evacuating US military airplanes, falling from the sky, have been even worse than the traumatic images America experienced during the fall of Saigon in 1975. There have been many comparisons made between the Vietnam War and the Afghanistan War because of their length, mission creep, unclear objectives, and David-versus-Goliath humiliating defeat. But the consequences of Afghanistan could be far worse. Vietnam was an American war, demoralizing one nation. Afghanistan is a NATO mission, and its failure will demoralize two continents. The US has not only abandoned the Afghans it worked with over the past two decades, it’s also left European countries in the lurch as they scramble to evacuate their citizens and those who have helped them. After the trauma of this week, which follows on from the destabilizing Trump years, there is little trust left in Europe toward Washington. How can NATO, which is effectively an American military protectorate over Europe that relies in trust as its bedrock, survive in its current form in such conditions?

“This is the biggest debacle that NATO has suffered since its founding,” said Armin Laschet, the leader of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) who is expected to replace Merkel as German chancellor after September’s election. “We will talk about the causes and conclusions drawn after this rescue mission—a no-holds-barred analysis of errors in Germany, with our allies and in the international community," he said.

The European NATO members have of course had another humiliation in the past, during the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The difference here, however, is that after early European failures those wars were eventually “won” by NATO when the US rode to the rescue. In that sense, NATO functioned for what it is—an American military protectorate over Europe. The failure in Afghanistan presents a much greater challenge to the alliance, however, because NATO did not work here either as an alliance or as a protectorate. America lost this war, and dragged NATO members down into defeat with it.

Confronting a Hard Truth

But how far is Laschet willing to go in his exploration of the errors made here? The idea that the errors in question involved trusting too much in NATO and the United States is a point few in Germany are willing to make. In neighboring NATO-skeptic France, that has not been a problem. France had already pulled combat troops out of Afghanistan in 2014, but remained with logistics and civilian forces that are now being evacuated. Already in French foreign policy circles, the argument is being made that this shows the need for EU military capability to augment (or, said more quietly, replace) NATO to give Europe “strategic autonomy.” If European countries were less reliant on NATO, the thinking goes, they would not have been brow-beaten into participating in this war for two decades and then suddenly left in the lurch by Washington at the last moment.

In the United Kingdom, such thinking is, of course, anathema. And yet the statements this week by politicians and defense officials make it hard to defend NATO as it exists today. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace claimed on Friday he had warned at June’s NATO summit that rubber-stamped the US-imposed NATO withdrawal plan that this was a “mistake” and that “we'll all, as an international community, probably pay the consequences of that.” Italian politicians also claim to have pushed back against the withdrawal plan.

But this begs the question: If all these European countries were against the withdrawal plan, why did they withdraw? The conclusion is that the Europeans could never have continued even a small mission in Afghanistan without the Americans. But if that’s the case, it exposes the fanciful idea that NATO is a military alliance as wishful thinking. This is an US-led alliance incapable of acting in any way without the United States. And this leaves European countries with no agency, completely impotent on security matters.

One could argue that such an arrangement has worked out well for Europeans in decades past. They could spend less on defense and count on the US to protect them if threats came from the East, passing on the burden of their own defense to US taxpayers. But after four years of frighteningly erratic behavior from the US president, and with this latest illustration of how little Washington regards the opinions of Europeans despite Biden’s claims that “America is back,” how is this arrangement sustainable?

This is a taboo subject in much of the continent, particularly Germany, the UK, and Eastern Europe. But this week’s traumatic images must force politicians in these countries to have an honest conversation about NATO. The knee-jerk incredulous pushback against Macron’s characterization of the organization as “brain dead” needs to stop. An honest discussion about NATO doesn’t have to end with the organization’s collapse. If it did, it doesn’t speak very highly of the strength and resilience of the organization.

There are many options for transforming NATO into something that works in the interests of both Americans and Europeans. One option would be turning it into a Europe-only military alliance without the US, Canada, or Turkey. Another would be having an EU or an EU plus UK unified military bloc within the alliance as a counterbalance to American hegemony.

The most extreme option is to disband the organization altogether. This is not desirable and would throw away decades of tireless work that has created the world’s strongest military alliance. But the limits of a NATO that seems powerful but has rotted at its core have been laid bare for all to see this week. If Europeans continue to bury their heads in the sand when it comes to the alliance's fundamental problems, by the time it comes to putting it to the test it will be too late. Those who value NATO should be open to completely transforming what it is. It may be the only way to save it.

Dave Keating is an American journalist based in Brussels covering European politics for France24 and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center.

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