Afghanistan and NATO: an Alarm Bell, not a Death Knell

The messy end to NATO’s engagement in Afghanistan underlines the need to press ahead with plans to adapt to the new era of strategic competition so that NATO remains as the central hub for defence and security cooperation among the Allies.

The rapidity of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and the hasty evacuation from Kabul has – understandably – led to a great deal of finger-pointing, hand-wringing, and soul-searching.

Critics have suggested that the entire 20-year engagement in Afghanistan was futile, a sentiment eagerly endorsed by both Russia and China, which have portrayed the situation as a humiliating defeat for NATO, whereby Afghanistan has simply gone full circle – from Taliban rule to Taliban rule – despite twenty years of international involvement.

NATO, they say, is losing relevance, and confidence in America’s leadership and commitment to international engagements has been undermined.

The reality, however, is different: more nuanced and far less bleak. The August exit from Kabul must be viewed in the perspective of twenty years of engagement by a multitude of nations and organizations, all of which will need to draw their own lessons about their successes and failures.

For NATO, it might well be that certain decisions could have been made or implemented better – and NATO is good at learning from experience – but the main lesson is quite likely to be that NATO should press ahead with existing plans for adaptation to the unpredictable challenges of a rapidly changing world. And as for Afghanistan itself, the Taliban’s room for manoeuvre will be constrained by the positive changes in Afghanistan wrought by the international community, as well as by the growing realization that they will need international help to survive.

But before looking at some of the main elements of international engagement in Afghanistan, it is worth taking stock of some of the achievements.

Today's Afghanistan

The progress made in Afghanistan over the last two decades has not been erased by the dreadful events surrounding the evacuation from Kabul. As the new Taliban regime is discovering, there are profound differences between the Afghanistan of today and the Afghanistan of twenty years ago.

In 1996, when the Taliban took over almost the entire country, Afghanistan had been ravaged by Soviet occupation, famine, drought, and civil war. The Taliban were at first welcomed for bringing stability, but their indifference to the suffering of the population, their intolerance of international aid bodies, and the shocking brutality with which they ruled, rapidly made them an international pariah, as well as domestically unpopular.

Today, an entire generation of young Afghans has grown up free from the shackles of the Taliban, and the numbers are remarkable. Afghanistan is, in a very real sense, a young country, with over 60 per cent of Afghans being less than 25 years old.

Until recent events, 9.7 million Afghans – 42 per cent of them female – were in education, and GDP has more than tripled since 2001. There have been huge increases in access to health care, resulting in substantial decreases in infant and maternal mortality. Afghan life expectancy has risen from 47 to almost 65 years old.

Access to electricity has risen from 8 per cent to 30 per cent, and, in a population of almost 39 million, there are over 16 million mobile phones.

In short, Afghanistan – especially its urban areas – have changed beyond recognition over the last two decades.

Even though the last two decades have included periods of intense conflict in certain regions, and an on-going background of severe security difficulties, the decades before 2001 were demonstrably worse for the general population, with deaths of at least 500,000 under Soviet occupation alone, along with refugees numbering millions. Few young Afghans – especially in urban areas – are likely to welcome a Taliban-imposed lifestyle, and the same is almost certainly true for most of those who remember the times before and during the five years of Taliban rule.

This is supported by surveys which indicated that in 2009 almost half of Afghans – mainly in rural areas – had sympathy for armed opposition groups, mainly the Taliban, but the figure had dropped to less than 14 per cent by 2019. There was also overwhelming support for the protection of women’s rights.

It is tragic that some of the achievements of the last two decades are now in jeopardy, but there is no doubt that the lives of millions of Afghans have been changed for the better by those achievements, especially compared with what those lives would have been like had Taliban rule continued.

The Taliban regime will certainly seek to reverse much of that progress, but they must be aware that the population they aspire to govern has little in common with the population they subjugated over two decades ago. Furthermore, unless the regime is willing simply to let that population suffer the consequences of a humanitarian crisis and an economic collapse, it will very soon need the resources that only the international community can provide. In other words, it is not a foregone conclusion that the Taliban will – or will be able – to undo all the achievements of the previous two decades.

Afghanistan: a Collective Endeavour

Those achievements resulted from the collective efforts of many different nations, international organizations, and NGOs which managed to engage – or re-engage – in Afghanistan following the removal of the Taliban regime at the end of 2001.

This was precipitated by the dreadful “911” attacks against the United States and orchestrated by Osama bin Laden, the leader of the terrorist group, Al Qaeda, which had been allowed to operate freely in Afghanistan by the Taliban regime. Following the Taliban’s refusal to hand over Osama bin Laden, an American-led coalition took action against Al Qaeda and the Taliban regime.

In December 2001, while “Enduring Freedom” coalition operations continued to pursue remaining Al Qaeda and Taliban forces, the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was launched to help the new Afghan government provide security throughout the country and assist Afghanistan in developing its own security forces. (See “The Occupation Myth”)

NATO’s involvement began in 2003 when it agreed to take the lead in ISAF.

And it is also worth remembering that NATO was not the architect of Afghanistan’s 2004 Constitution, which was prepared by an Afghan commission supported by the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan and the United Nations Development Programme.

The result – certainly with the benefit of hindsight – seems in some respects poorly suited to certain aspects of Afghanistan’s political and ethnic traditions and distribution. (See “The Afghan Constitution).

The Occupation Myth

The engagement of the international community in Afghanistan since the end of 2001 is sometimes portrayed as yet another iteration of the long history of interference in Afghanistan by outside powers.

Each of those chapters has its own distinct story – although with similar endings – but international engagement in Afghanistan over the last two decades had nothing to do with plunder, domination, occupation, or some sort of “Great Game” competition among foreign powers.

The initial intervention, of course, following the dreadful events of “911”, was to remove Al Qaeda from Afghanistan by force when it became clear that the Taliban would not do so.

The accomplishment of that mission necessitated the removal of the Taliban, and this was followed by a sincere and genuine effort to improve the lot of the Afghan people who had suffered decades of civil war followed by five brutal years of Taliban subjugation.

While one might criticize the efficiency and effectiveness of subsequent efforts to bring about good governance in Afghanistan, the simple fact is that the international community was not engaged in Afghanistan for profit or domination. Quite the contrary: it invested vast resources and lost thousands of lives to help the people of Afghanistan make the transition from the Dark Ages of Taliban rule to the 21st century.

Furthermore, while NATO was naturally central to efforts to build security in Afghanistan – directly and also by helping to increase the capabilities of Afghan national security forces – security provides only the “safe space” for nation-building and establishing good governance, edifices which lie outside NATO’s remit and capacities.

NATO is an Alliance intended to enable its members to act in concert on matters of defence and security. It does not have the mandate, mission, expertise, or capacity to deliver economic assistance, let alone build institutions across the full spectrum of governance, such as education, the judiciary, transport, communications, agriculture, industry etc..

“NATO simply cannot deliver – and cannot be expected to deliver – the panoply of state capabilities that lie outside its remit and capacity.”

As James Dobbins put it as long ago as 2005, “NATO…has no capacity for civil implementation and must always depend upon the United Nations and/or some ad hoc coalition of willing countries to perform the myriad of non-military functions essential to the success of any nation-building operation. As a result, NATO’s exit strategy always depends upon the performance of other organizations”.To try to bridge that gap, NATO adopted a “comprehensive approach”, reflecting the need to work with national bodies, international organizations, and NGOs to assist in areas beyond the military domain.

The key point is that nation-building efforts in Afghanistan were a responsibility shared by all the various entities involved. If, as critics assert, those efforts were a failure, then it is a failure for the international community of which NATO is just a part. NATO simply cannot deliver – and cannot be expected to deliver – the panoply of state capabilities that lie outside its remit and capacity.

The Afghan Constitution

One response to criticism of the various elections held in Afghanistan after 2001 was along the lines of “It was never going to be Switzerland”.

It is a pity that the comparison wasn’t made when the Constitution was being drafted. Like Afghanistan, Switzerland is mountainous, with distinct regional and linguistic communities, and a strong tradition of local and regional autonomy.

In fact, as eloquently described by Akhilesh Pillalamarri in an article in The Diplomat, the Afghan Constitution adopted in 2004 “created an over-centralized, unitary state in an ethnically diverse, mountainous country where local leaders, communities, and tribes often effectively rule themselves.  In addition to imposing a distant government’s will on localities, centralization in Afghanistan also created institutions that the government in Kabul simply could not run effectively, further undermining it in the eyes of its people”.

The Security Dimension

But security was, of course, squarely down to NATO, which has announced that it will review and draw lessons from its engagement in Afghanistan.

A very substantial element of that critical reflection will be for military and operational professionals who will seek to determine why events turned out as they did, despite the enormous sacrifices, efforts, and investments made. From what has been published so far by analysts – including those with first-hand experience – there will be lessons aplenty about misguided assumptions, cultural insensitivity, different decisions that could have been made, and plans that could have been implemented better. Attention will also have to be paid to working out why serious warnings from credible quarters failed to shift the prevailing orthodoxy.

In fact, there will already be encyclopedias-full of lessons learned by national military authorities and NATO commands and planners from operational military experience in Afghanistan, including lessons on interactions with non-military bodies.  National armed forces each have their own systems in place for ensuring that lessons are learned and applied. In addition, NATO itself has formal procedures for acquiring, assessing, and assimilating lessons learned from operations and exercises. Indeed, NATO’s Joint Analysis and Lesson Learned Centre (JALLC) exists specifically for that purpose.

Further volumes will no doubt be added on the mismatch between expectations and reality regarding the performance of Afghanistan’s National Security Forces. (See “Afghan National Security Forces: what happened?”) 

But the main concern should be whether the decisions that led directly up to the August events in Kabul are indicative of emerging fault-lines at the institutional and political levels of the organization itself.

Afghan National Security Forces: what happened?

The NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan (NTM-A) was established in 2009 and worked in partnership with the Afghan Ministry of Defence and Ministry of the Interior, and in collaboration with other bodies, such as the European Police Mission in Afghanistan.

Clearly, there will be major reflection on why Afghanistan’s own forces capitulated – or rather melted away – so rapidly. Those same forces had sustained high numbers of casualties over a prolonged period, so it is simplistic and unfair to assume that they simply buckled.

Certainly, their effectiveness was reduced by the loss of international support, and the effect on morale might well have been more damaging than the loss of raw capability. International support might well have compensated for a probable lack of confidence in Afghan political leadership that could have made a crucial difference in decisions about what to fight and die for.

In other words, without international support, was it realistic to expect Afghan forces to lay down their lives for political masters they knew to be corrupt?

This would only be a partial explanation, however. The United States Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, for instance, had consistently reported serious reservations about the capabilities of the Afghan National Security Forces, and about the appropriateness of the training and equipment provided to them. It is certainly possible that no amount of dedication, professionalism and goodwill could overcome the lack of basic skills and infrastructure needed to sustain a military establishment based on a technically advanced, first-world military model.

These types of issue will clearly be a major area for analysis by NATO – and/or its members – as will the associated decision-making, review, and intelligence-assessment processes.

It is fair to point out, of course, that even the Taliban was surprised by the speed of its nation-wide takeover, but that does not absolve NATO and the international community from the need to learn why the course of events surrounding the withdrawal from Afghanistan was so different from expectations.

The Doha Agreement: flawed and a tempting scapegoat

Very distinguished fingers have pointed to the agreement signed in Doha on 21 February 2020 between the United States and the Taliban as a key inflection point.

The Doha agreement set a firm timetable for the withdrawal of American forces in return – essentially – for: the cessation of Taliban attacks on those forces; a Taliban guarantee that groups or individuals would be prevented from threatening the security of the United States and its Allies; and a Taliban commitment to enter talks with the Afghan government on a permanent ceasefire and the exchange of prisoners.

However, despite the assertion in the agreement’s opening paragraphs, the Doha Agreement lacked enforcement measures, and its provisions on intra-Afghan dialogue set out the agenda and “wish list” for goals, but without firm deadlines and milestones.

What was demanded of the Taliban was essentially intra-Afghan dialogue alone, not tangible and measurable outcomes.In other words, the United States committed itself to a specific withdrawal timetable, while the Taliban agreed to refrain from attacking foreign forces and needed only to pay lip service to the rest the bargain in the knowledge that the Afghan government’s “leverage” in subsequent negotiations would be vastly diminished once international forces had left the country.

In mitigation, however, it was assumed that further agreements and commitments would follow, and there was certainly hope that the negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban which commenced in September 2020 would produce more results. In fact, successive rounds made little or no progress.

The problem for the United States was that renouncing this deal with the Taliban would almost inevitably have ended Taliban restraint on attacks on US forces. And there is no denying that American public opinion and the media would have been quick to criticize a decision which led to further casualties. (See “Breaking the Doha Agreement? Easy to say”)

“The real issue is not whether the Allies were ignored, but that for a so-minded US administration, they were so ignorable…”

There has been criticism that the United States’ Allies were informed about rather than consulted on the Doha Agreement, but the real issue is not whether the Allies were ignored, but that for a so-minded US administration, they were so ignorable. Even though non-US forces made up the greater part of “Resolute Support” forces towards the end of the engagement, the mission was critically dependent upon US assets, including thousands of contractors. The simple fact is that the United States could have stayed on without its Allies, but the Allies could not have stayed on without the United States.

Breaking the Doha Agreement? Easy to say

It Is easy to say that the United States should have reneged on the flawed Doha Agreement with the Taliban, but who would have paid for the consequences?

At the time the United States signed the agreement with the Taliban – February 2020 – the United States provided 8,000 troops, just under half of the Resolute Support total. A year later, the US number had fallen to 2,500 (plus 16,000 civilian contractors) somewhat more than 25 per cent of the Resolute Support total.

This, however, was while the Taliban was largely respecting the Doha agreement. Had the United States subsequently broken the agreement – as opposed to stretching it – there is no doubt that the security situation would have deteriorated, forcing the United States and NATO to face tough decisions on force levels.

If it had been deemed necessary to return forces to the “pre-Doha” levels, where would the 7.000 or so troops have come from? It is well documented that the deployment was unpopular in the United States, so would the non-United States contributors have agreed to make up the shortfall by doubling their forces? Taking the February 2020 figures, for instance, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom contributed 1,300, 895 and 750 troops respectively. Would their publics have been any more accepting of a dramatic increase in commitments than the US public?

Of course, it is not possible to know what force levels would have been needed in a “post-Doha” environment, nor how long it would have taken until the Afghan government and its security forces were better placed to manage without them.

Knowing what we do now, that “until” could have been a very long time indeed.


That reality, of course, continued, notwithstanding the change in US administration in January 2021.

The current US administration inherited the Doha agreement with all its shortcomings and faced a tough choice: renege on the agreement with the Taliban; stick rigidly to it; or stretch the terms. Certainly, some senior United States military officials felt that 2,500 American troops should have been kept on in Afghanistan, but President Biden chose to delay, not cancel, the departure of US forces, and the NATO allies followed suit: in together, out together.

Some senior figures in Alliance countries have suggested that they would have preferred otherwise, but, again, Allies had little alternative: as NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said, “it was hard for other allies to continue without the United States. It was not a realistic option.”

Bringing More to the Table

The lesson seems obvious: America’s Allies should “bring more to the table”, and this refrain has resonated anew among European leaders.

European Council President Charles Michel, for instance, has again stressed the need for European “strategic autonomy”, and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in her “State of the Union” address on 15 September 2021 talked of the need for Europeans to strengthen their own military capabilities, as well as their collective will to act in the realm of defence.

This is wholly in keeping with NATO’s long-standing goal: that America’s Allies should take on a fairer share of NATO collective defence spending, which would translate into more defence capabilities.

At the NATO Wales Summit in 2014, Allies agreed to “aim to increase” defence spending to 2.0 per cent of GDP by 2024, and NATO’s Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, now refers to that “aim” as “The 2014 Defence Investment Pledge”. In his 2020 Annual Report, he points out that this has produced six consecutive years of growth in defence spending by European Allies and Canada, adding a cumulative total of US$190 billion to their defence budgets.

Progress has also been made on another aspect of the Defence Investment Pledge – the aim to spend 20 per cent of annual defence expenditure on defence equipment – and on meeting guidelines for deployability, sustainability, interoperability etc.

Fulfilling these goals would greatly “de-escalate” the long-standing transatlantic dispute over burden sharing, which resonates even among US public opinion. Just as importantly, it would enhance the capabilities that NATO can bring to bear in fulfilling its deterrent and defence commitments, and which NATO’s 21 EU members can contribute to the EU.

Unfortunately, however, it would make only a small difference to the overall imbalance in transatlantic capabilities, reducing the United States share of NATO defence spending from its current 71 per cent down to 66 per cent.

Nor would it be sufficient to provide the EU with anything approaching “strategic autonomy”: that will require much greater – and much more efficient – European defence spending, over an extended period, bearing in mind that weapons platforms have lifecycles measured in decades.

But this is actually a moot point because several EU nations simply will not fulfil the Defence Investment Pledge. Germany, for instance, has stated that it will not reach the 2 per cent target until the beginning of the next decade.

Fortunately, shifts in NATO’s priorities and in the geo-strategic landscape will very likely combine to encourage more intense and wider consultation among the Allies, so the frustrations of unfilled spending pledges might remain somewhat muted

Different Tables

Following the end of NATO’s engagement in Afghanistan, the expectation is that NATO will re-focus on collective defence, which in today’s security environment includes goes beyond the military dimension and includes complex and usually covert assaults on the entire fabric of democratic societies – values, institutions, social cohesion, the free market etc.

Military forces will remain essential, with the trend towards greater mobility, agility, and sustainability to enable Allies to support each other, and therefore also more readily able to project power outside NATO’s borders, if or when such a need next arises.

But with the focus on the more direct protection of NATO territory and societies, it goes without saying that intra-Alliance consultation is a given. In addition, the European Allies naturally bring more to the collective defence “table” than to the expeditionary one, although not enough to get them off the burden-sharing hook.

But even before the August events in Kabul, NATO had recognized that it must deepen and broaden political consultation among the Allies so that they can discuss security threats beyond the military domain. In a new era of strategic competition, such threats come in many shapes and sizes: economic inducements and punishments, efforts to undermine values, institutions, and societies, cyber-attacks, disinformation campaigns, disruption of supplies of essential goods – from microchips and pharmaceuticals to rare earth metals and energy, climate change, mass migration, international terrorism, to name but a few.

The Panda in the Room

A major factor is, of course, the growing regional and global assertiveness of China, which did not even merit a mention in NATO’s 2010 Strategic Concept. Clearly, NATO must be able to discuss China’s agenda and actions on topics which are – variously – competitive, cooperative, convergent, and confrontational.

Quite what mechanisms will be put in place, and how NATO will coordinate policies with other bodies such as the EU, the G-7, the Quad, etc, remains to be seen, and it should not be taken for granted that all Allies will be easily persuaded to broaden NATO’s scope sufficiently.

Wielding All the Instruments of Statecraft

The need, however, is obvious: China is making relentless use of the full spectrum of “instruments of power” to influence, manipulate, and intimidate, in pursuit of its regional and global ambitions. As a nation, it can wield all the instruments of state – military, political, economic, etc – in a “grand strategy” to achieve its goals, and – as the world’s second largest economy – those instruments are formidable indeed.

The United States, of course, can pull the same levers on an even larger scale, but no other entity or alliance comes close. The European Union’s economic might is comparable with that of China and the United States, but it has not yet managed to translate that into a proportionate degree of international political leverage or military power.

NATO has the opposite problem, having been mainly focused on the “hard” dimensions of security, with some sterling work also being done in the realm of information. Yet, the aggregate economic power of NATO’s members is, of course, more than the combined total of the United States and the European Union. It therefore makes sense for NATO to be able to discuss how that power can contribute to security, and the NATO Treaty does grant its members more latitude than they have exercised in the past.

In other words, the time is now ripe to develop the means to more closely align the goals of NATO and the European Union and improve the synergy between the two organizations.

That will mean coordinating the EU’s “Strategic Compass” – due to be adopted in March 2022 – with NATO’s new Strategic Concept – due to be adopted in June 2022.

Such coordination has been limited by differences in membership and by different visions of the roles of each organization, even among members who are in both.

Fortunately, there seems to be a growing groundswell in favour of strengthening cooperation between the two organizations and the need to address the full spectrum of security threats.

And it makes little sense to complain about an organization’s supposed limitations while not granting it the scope to go beyond those limitations.

No Time for Despair or Complacency

The end of NATO’s engagement in Afghanistan has rung an alarm bell for NATO, but not sounded its death knell, as NATO’s detractors would have it.

That alarm bell ensures that lessons will be learned about whatever went right or wrong, and by whichever body should take the credit or the blame.

NATO was a part of the international community’s transformation of the lives and experiences of an entire generation of Afghan citizens, and those considerable achievements have not been erased and cannot be ignored by the Taliban regime.

And when NATO reflects on its own role, the Doha agreement, with all its flaws, should not be seen as a scapegoat, but rather as a salutary reminder of the need for all the Allies to pull their weight – for the United States’ Allies to make themselves “unignorable”. At the same time, the agreement underlined the importance of consultation within the Alliance, regardless of any internal frictions: no-one can say for sure, but a decent case can be made that broader consultation might well have produced a better result.

The Allies must now work more closely together if they are to navigate successfully through the daunting array of security challenges that they and “like-minded” nations all face. And they will not succeed by standing still: NATO will have to adapt as thoroughly as it did after the end of the Cold War.

Granting it that latitude for adaptation will not come easily to those of its members who have seen any broadening as a potential threat to the primacy of the European Union in non-military matters.

It is worth remembering, however, that – unlike the EU – NATO is not a supranational body, but completely under the authority of its member nations. Before national leaders take aim at NATO’s direction or putative limitations, they might first reflect on who sets that direction or imposes those limitations.

ATA UK 4 November 2021