September 02, 2021

Hard Questions for NATO post-Afghanistan

The Western allies need to review what went wrong in Afghanistan with a genuine sense of humility. Otherwise they are bound to repeat the same mistakes in the future.

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US Army Major General Chris Donahue, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, steps on board a C-17 transport plane as the last U.S. service member to leave Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan August 30, 2021 in a photograph taken using night vision optics on August 30, 2021.
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NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg must have imagined his last year in office would be somewhat different. After the NATO summit in June, which generated the long-awaited political soundbites about transatlantic solidarity on the part of the new US administration, work on the new Strategic Concept was due to begin in early September. According to the political roadmap, Stoltenberg wanted to present NATO’s new strategy to the 30 alliance leaders at their next summit meeting in Spain in 2022, as a highlight of his eight-year tenure at the helm at NATO. Instead, however, recent events in Afghanistan have caught the alliance as much off guard as the coronavirus pandemic did 18 months earlier.

Could the drama in Afghanistan have been anticipated? Substantial warnings have been around for years. After ex-US President Donald Trump’s with the Taliban last year, it was evident that Afghanistan was heading for a significant disaster. The train had long since left the station when US State Secretary Antony Blinken was still repeating the Western allies’ mantra of “in together, out together” while visiting Brussels in March. Even after the NATO ministerial meetings in April and June, NATO, seemingly, saw no reason to start preparations for an orderly and coordinated troop withdrawal from Afghanistan; let alone for a reflection process on the wider implications that would logically follow from the end of NATO’s mission in the country: for Afghanistan proper, the region, and the wider geopolitical setting.

No Shortage of “Lessons Learned”

Now the longest, largest, and most expensive out-of-area mission in the alliance’s 70-plus-year history has gone up in smoke and chaos at Kabul airport. At a hastily scheduled foreign ministers’ meeting Stoltenberg offered two quick reactions: like US President Joe Biden, he blamed the Afghan government for the fiasco, and he announced that NATO would conduct an “honest and comprehensive review” of events in Afghanistan. Alas, the alliance does not suffer from a shortage of “lessons learned” papers on the ISAF operation and subsequent Resolute Support mission. For the past 20 years, NATO staffers have been busy producing numerous internal reports, seeking to grasp the respective missions’ accomplishments and challenges. Yet NATO’s internal reviews are not known for being particularly self-critical.

Whatever way Stoltenberg eventually oversees a “lessons learned” exercise about NATO’s failures in Afghanistan, one thing is certain: an open-ended evaluation of the Western debacle in Afghanistan will be closely linked to the question of the transatlantic alliance’s future strategic outlook. Stoltenberg’s inner circle has been quick to emphasize that work on the new Strategic Concept will not be affected by the Afghanistan disaster, but how can one seriously expect NATO to conduct “business as usual”? The alliance’s abrupt and chaotic departure from Afghanistan will come with far-reaching consequences for the West; and notably, the distribution of power in the international system. Thus far, developments in Afghanistan have already sparked a series of painful questions for the NATO.

Question 1: Who is leading?

Just a few weeks ago, European leaders were immensely relieved to have with Joe Biden a US president in the White House who voiced his unbreakable commitment to NATO and promised to stand by his allies and partners. But the way by which he unilaterally ordered the US forces’ exit from Afghanistan has once again revived doubts about transatlantic solidarity.

Behind and in front of the scenes, a growing number of Europeans have started to question Washington’s commitment to listen to and work with its allies. How much will Europe be able to rely on unrestricted US defense support and engagement in the future? And what about Washington’s sense of strategic judgment which, as illustrated by the tumultuous drawdown of the US military, appears to have been somewhat misguided? Of course, grave mistakes have been made on both sides of the pond. But faults made by the “leader of the free world” weigh particularly heavily. The ranks of the traditional advocates of European strategic autonomy are now seconded by others for whom the Afghanistan debacle is final proof that Europe must become more independent of Washington, both militarily and politically.

The United Kingdom is particularly disappointed about how its “special relation” in Washington mishandled NATO’s departure from Afghanistan. And even if much more discreetly, nagging doubts about US security guarantees have emerged again in the Baltic states, in Poland, and other small NATO members. Washington’s reaction to criticism from the European allies will not be long in coming. As to be expected, the US administration has reminded its European partners that the lack of military capabilities is primarily their responsibility. Will this long-standing argument make any difference to the Europeans this time round? There are serious doubts. Too often and for too long the Europeans have vowed to step up to the plate and shoulder a larger part of the transatlantic burden. But some soul-searching is also much needed on the US side. If not now than when should the transatlantic allies have a hard look at their strategic performance in Afghanistan?

Question 2: What is NATO’s role in crises?

Predictably, the question of NATO’s future role as a crisis manager and trainer of armed forces has moved to the fore. European political leaders and commentators have been quick to point out that the drama in Afghanistan has demonstrated that military power and nation-building are not a good couple. In fact, NATO’s track record as a successful crisis manager is not impressive. Apart from the 20-year-long mission in Kosovo, the alliance has taken on rather small and temporary non-Article 5 missions in recent years. Against this background, Secretary General Stoltenberg has campaigned vehemently for the strengthening of NATO's role as a provider of military training; a point that should also flow into NATO's new Strategic Concept.

In Iraq, for example, the alliance has been busy preparing for the withdrawal of US combat troops by the end of the year. Already some time ago NATO allies had decided to assume responsibility for a larger training mission for the Iraqi armed forces. Given a highly volatile security situation, continuous political instability, and deeply rooted ethno-religious conflicts in the country, one can only hope that NATO-trained Iraqi forces will not be put to the test. Would they run away again, as they did in the face of the Islamic State overrunning Mosul in 2014, when confronted with a serious enemy?

Indisputably, NATO would be well advised to keep a close eye on the situation in Iraq. But how should the alliance fundamentally position itself as a crisis manager in the future? In addition to collective defense and partnerships, the capacity to run robust crisis management operations is NATO’s third core task. Considering the volatile security environment at NATO's external borders, it makes little sense to forego this third pillar. At some point in time, the alliance may well be asked to act again as a crisis manager. But the allies’ political appetite for out-of-area missions will be much lower in the coming years. However, if requested, NATO should make every effort to setting clear and achievable tasks for its military missions, subjecting them to a sober risk assessment on a regular basis.

Question 3: What is NATO’s role in counterterrorism?

According to Stoltenberg, NATO has achieved its primary goal set after the al-Qaeda terrorist attack of September 11, 2001: It successfully prevented terrorists from using Afghanistan as a safe haven. In future, according to the secretary general, the alliance will not allow terrorists operating on Afghan territory to threaten Western security either. Stoltenberg’s words could turn out to be futile because how are the Western allies to achieve this goal in concrete terms? The bottom line is that for Salafists, Jihadists, and other radical Islamist groups around the globe, the Taliban’s victory is both a joyful event and a huge encouragement: the “Western, decadent enemy” can be defeated.

There is little doubt that al-Qaeda, Islamic State, and other terrorist networks will do their best to take advantage of the new situation in Afghanistan. In recent years the Taliban and al-Qaeda are said to have increasingly coordinated their activities. Following Osama bin Laden’s death, a new generation of jihadist fighters seems to have agreed to leave behind old rivalries and embark on a pragmatic course of mutual support. Under the Taliban’s rule, al-Qaeda fighters will likely be able to move freely in and out of Afghanistan and receive practical support for their future actions in the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and elsewhere in the world. Their open “love letter” to the new rulers in Afghanistan is a case in point.

Recent terrorist attacks in Kabul have already provided a glimpse into how the hostile relationship between the Taliban and Islamic State, which has its stronghold in southern Afghanistan, will probably evolve in the future. With every new terror attack, IS leaders can add more fuel to the spiral of violence in Afghanistan. Without intelligence operators on the ground, it will be challenging for the Americans and their European allies to generate a realistic assessment of the terrorist threat that will evolve in and from Afghanistan.

As in Yemen and Syria, the US can be expected to rely on targeted drone attacks to eliminate some of the top terrorists. Moreover, the Americans will have their espionage and reconnaissance satellites orbit the country. Since NATO has neither its own combat drones nor satellite reconnaissance capabilities, European allies can only hope that Washington will be prepared to share essential information with them. Ultimately, NATO could also try and propose closer counter-terrorism cooperation with some of its partners in the region. Yet there aren't that many.

Question 4: What is NATO’s political weight in the world?

The Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan is also a heavy blow to the political weight that the alliance brings to the table in its dealings with China and Russia as well as regional powers and partners around the world. That Russia and China only offered snide remarks about NATO’s failure in Afghanistan was to be expected. But beyond the rhetoric, both Moscow and Beijing will be eager to fill the strategic void that the West has left behind in Afghanistan.

President Vladimir Putin has already made it clear that Russia’s Central Asian neighbors are part of Moscow’s exclusive sphere of influence. Putin did not delay in ordering more Russian troops at the borders to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. His quick move will make it difficult for NATO to revive partnerships with the Central Asian countries that have largely been allowed to fall dormant in recent years. Whether individual allies are seeking political support for their ongoing evacuation efforts or help with counterterrorism activities in Central Asia, they will not be able ignore Moscow’s footprint in the region.

China’s pragmatic handling of the new regime in Kabul is pursuing two main objectives: to keep Islamic terrorists at bay and protect its Belt and Road Initiative projects. In the future, China will be an important partner for the Taliban, especially when it comes to providing economic and financial aid. Seen from Beijing, this is a wonderful means of exerting political influence on developments in Afghanistan. Significantly, on the day after the G7 Afghanistan summit, Russian President Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping agreed on a coordinated approach to Afghanistan. They will do the same on other major international security issues and will remind the alliance of its failure in Afghanistan whenever the opportunity arises.

Re-establishing Credibility

The regime in Tehran can also be expected to take advantage of the new situation in Afghanistan. Iranian interests are particularly focused on protecting the Shia Hazara minority in the country. The Fatiynoum Brigade, recruited and trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, consists largely of Afghan Hazaras. The Assad-friendly militia that is estimated to have gathered 50,000 fighters under its banner, has already made a name for itself in the Syrian civil war.  In December 2020, former Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif proposed to the Afghan government the deployment of the Fatiyoum Brigade to strengthen Afghan counterterrorism efforts against the Islamic State. This was not meant as a neighborly and friendly gesture. Should the Taliban act against Iranian interests, the regime in Tehran will likely consider its options on how to make the best use of this asset.

The arch-enemies Pakistan and India are unlikely to remain passive once the balance of power in the South and Central Asian region is re-calibrated. Some NATO planners may feel tempted to argue that this aspect is secondary to alliance interests. NATO may even try to downplay the loss of credibility that its departure from Afghanistan has produced in the Muslim world. Partner countries in the Middle East and North Africa such as Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, and Mauretania will certainly draw their own conclusions about the alliance’s performance in Afghanistan. What is certain, however, is that if the alliance seeks to continue to cultivate its partnerships and wants to be perceived as a competent and credible actor on important security issues such as cyber defense, counterterrorism, arms control, and migration, it will have to provide its partners with convincing answers to the questions about its Afghanistan chapter.

NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg and some policymakers in allied capitals may succumb to the temptation to turn the page on the Afghanistan story as quickly as possible. Certainly, there are other pressing issues on the international agenda; above all, NATO wants to present a new and credible strategic outlook to the world. But moving ahead without stopping to consider the long-term effects on its 20-year-long operation in Afghanistan would not only be cynical but also strategically narrow-minded.

Political credibility is the most important currency in international affairs. It cannot possibly be re-established with a couple of quickly drafted press releases. Without reviewing their own performance in Afghanistan with a genuine sense of humility, Western allies are bound to repeat the same mistakes in the future. They should not be afraid to ask themselves some hard questions.

Stefanie Babst is a Principal and Global Policy Advisor at Brooch Associates, London, and a member of the DGAP Advisory Board (Präsidium).

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