Afghanistan: do we stay or do we go?


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

Back in my university days, The Clash had a big hit with “Should I stay or should I go?”. The key line in the song was: “if I go there will trouble/ and if I stay it will be double”. These words certainly sum up – better than any formal press statement – the dilemma that NATO defence ministers faced last week when they debated a joint way forward in Afghanistan.

Of course, it was helpful that the new US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin affirmed the US commitment to the alliance and the readiness of Washington to consult with its allies before taking any major decisions affecting their common security. This is in marked contrast to the Trump administration which announced its decision to withdraw 2,500 US troops from Afghanistan, half of the residual number, last autumn with no advance warning to NATO. Given that the allies contributing to NATO’s Resolute Support Training Mission in Afghanistan rely on US enablers, such as helicopters, medical evacuation, and intelligence, any US withdrawals would immediately jeopardise their own force protection and ability to operate.

Despite the harmony that reigned among defence ministers at NATO HQ, no decision was taken on whether NATO and its troop-contributing partners (32 nations in total, at the height of the alliance’s Afghan engagement) should pack their bags or dig in for the long haul. This decision, however, cannot be postponed for much longer.

According to the agreement that the US concluded with the Taliban in Doha in February 2020, all US and international forces have to depart Afghanistan by May 1st this year. The Taliban have been vociferous in pushing Washington to keep to this date, threatening the international military presence with hell, fire, and brimstone if they try to stay in Afghanistan longer. The Taliban point out that they have kept to their side of the bargain and indeed no foreign soldier has died over the last year, in marked contrast to the death toll during the almost 20 years during which the US and its allies maintained the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Resolute Support missions in Afghanistan. Germany, for instance, sent more than 100,000 Bundeswehr troops there and 54 lost their lives. Other forces will tell a similar story.

The core criterion for any peace operation is that one should leave the country in better shape than one found it

Yet, although the Taliban are insisting on the May 1st deadline, it is becoming increasingly difficult for NATO to view this as a good pretext to pull out and shut the door on what Trump described as an ‘endless war’. As much as the allies may want to leave, to do so at the present time would only raise even more unpleasant questions about why they went to Afghanistan in the first place. The core criterion for any peace operation is that one should leave the country in better shape than one found it. Yet, whereas it may have been possible to make this claim a decade or so ago based on the number of girls in school, women in parliament, and growing life expectancy, it is becoming harder to make this claim in 2021.

The World Bank reported last week that 72% of Afghans today live in poverty compared to 55% in 2019. Two-thirds of the population live on less than USD 1.90 a day, the unemployment rate has increased from 23.9% to 37.9% in just a year.  Certainly, the freedoms that have been gained vis-a-vis the period of Taliban rule from the mid-1990s to 2001 are real. Even in Taliban-ruled areas, girls are in school. Yet, they are learning the Quran rather than maths and science. Violence is also on the rise. While the UN administration in Kabul, UNAMA, reported a 15% drop in overall violence in 2020 compared to 2019, violence increased 46% in the last quarter of 2020, when peace talks in Doha between the Taliban and the Afghan government led by President Ashraf Ghani were already underway. The Taliban were responsible for 45% of the violence and ISIL for 8%. Clearly, the Taliban believe that talking and fighting at the same time is the best strategy to make NATO and the international community more generally tire of their Afghan commitment and wash their hands of the country altogether.

Yet NATO should not let itself be pushed around by the Taliban and allow the agenda to be dictated by their interests, rather than its own. The Taliban agreed to do far more than merely desist attacks on the US and other foreign forces; they agreed to lower the overall level of violence. Yet, in recent weeks, they have carried out a spate of targeted assassinations of judges, police chiefs, journalists, and university lecturers in Kabul, Kandahar, and other major cities. The Taliban appear intent on decimating the democratic, educated elites of Afghanistan, both present and future, so as to better impose their own religious ideology once they return to power. The sticky bomb attached to the car has become the modern equivalent of the improvised roadside explosive that they used against troops and civilians in the past.

Moreover, Western intelligence services are sceptical that the Taliban have cut their ties with terrorist groups, such as Al-Qaeda and ISIL, as they committed to do in the Doha agreement. In truth, it is not only Taliban violence that worries Western observers. The last time Afghanistan descended into civil war after Soviet troops left the country in 1989, regional warlords preyed on the vulnerable local communities without mercy. Over 50,000 Afghans were killed in the upsurge of anarchy and Kabul was largely destroyed. Many of these warlords have since died, but others, such as Abdur Rasoul Sayyaf or Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, are still powerful and potentially dangerous.

The Taliban seem to be running down the clock, waiting for the last NATO soldier to leave

The Taliban have also dragged their feet in the Doha talks, despite many promptings from the American side, only coming back to the talks this week after a break since the start of the year. They have haggled over the agenda as well as the scope of the talks and are clearly reluctant to engage with President Ghani and his government directly as if afraid of giving it legitimacy. ‘You have the watches but we have the time’ is a taunt that they have repeatedly addressed to the international forces in Afghanistan. The Taliban seem to be running down the clock, waiting for the last NATO soldier to leave. Power-sharing in Kabul and national reconciliation do not seem to be more than a rhetorical promise. Taliban forces have begun to move closer to the larger cities, particularly Kandahar so that they can succeed in achieving an objective that has long eluded them. This is to gain control of the cities rather than the villages and countryside where they have been embedded up to now.

Given this unfavourable situation, it was not surprising to hear NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg say last week that “NATO will leave Afghanistan when the time is right”. This undoubtedly does not seem to be now. It is not simply a technical issue of whether the Taliban have kept to all provisions of the Doha agreement. It is much more a strategic appreciation of whether allowing the Taliban to seize absolute power once again in Afghanistan would present an unacceptable threat to the West. Would Afghanistan revert to a massive terrorist training camp and logistics base as it was before the 9/11 attacks in 2001? Even beyond the distaste of seeing the human rights of Afghans repressed, especially among women and minority ethnic groups, it is this fundamental security question that needs to be answered. Some commentators once hoped that even if the Taliban returned to power, they would have learned the lesson of 9/11 and the US response leading to regime change, and thus keep their heads down at home in the future. Yet, this assumption carries a high risk; once international forces leave, it will be difficult for them to return, barring another devastating terrorist attack.

The Taliban will certainly interpret their return to power as proof that they have defeated the US and that their values have triumphed. This hardly suggests that they will keep a modest low profile. The strong implantation of ISIL-Khorosan in Afghanistan, which is involved in an increasing number of attacks, indicates that the Taliban will be pulled in a more outward direction, attracting wannabe jihadists from around the world as the ISIL caliphate in Syria and Iraq did until its demise in 2018. So, NATO’s Afghan strategy cannot be guided by nostalgia-tinged regrets over resources wasted on projects that never materialised, corruption inadequately fought, robust institutions that were not built, or economic development opportunities that were passed up. NATO’s strategy has to be future-oriented and based on a hard-headed assessment of the risks of a country that comes under the control of a radical Islamist government with strong international jihadist networks.

All this points to the near inevitability of NATO deciding to prolong its military presence in Afghanistan at its next meeting of foreign ministers in late March. Some allies are already pre-empting this step. German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer has announced that the German cabinet will extend the mandate of the 1,300 German troops in NATO’s Resolute Support mission until 31 January 2022. President Ghani has suggested a two-year extension, although six months seems more likely. Yet NATO cannot just extend to keep tabs on a deteriorating security situation. Remaining forces – now subject to fresh Taliban attacks – will need to be regrouped in safer, more easily reinforced locations with a probable concentration around Kabul. They will need close air support and drone capabilities, as well as special forces on quick reaction alert. Local evacuation plans will be required. More importantly, NATO will need to make the extra time count strategically to move the peace process beyond a waiting game spent in luxury hotels in Doha. It needs to put President Ghani in a stronger negotiating position with more leverage over the Taliban. How can this be done?

The Afghan forces need to be stronger in the air and further develop their special forces to keep the Taliban in check

First, the allies need to make clear they have a long-term commitment to Afghanistan that will endure long after their military presence on the ground has ended. They will continue to train, equip and finance the Afghan security forces which already carry out 90% of the daily security operations. The Afghan forces need to be stronger in the air and further develop their special forces to keep the Taliban in check. They need specialised equipment such as drones and multiple rocket systems. Afghan intelligence services need to be made more professional and effective. The police forces for local security have never been properly developed, with different nations and organisations having taken the lead at various times. So, a real strategy for doing this needs to be agreed upon. All this suggests that NATO will need to keep some training and advisory presence in Kabul, attached to the Ministries of Defence and the Interior even after the combat forces and bulk of the Resolute Support trainers are withdrawn. The challenge for NATO will be to determine how it can continue to mentor the Afghan security forces from over the horizon. Training, staff officer courses and exercises in the NATO partner countries in the region, such as Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Georgia, Ukraine and NATO ally Turkey could be the way forward here. A training and education network linked to the Afghan Military Academy in Kabul should be established.

Second, NATO should consider how it can maintain its own over-the-horizon military presence in the vicinity of Afghanistan. This could consist of special operations forces stationed in the Gulf countries, NATO fighter aircraft and drone bases in the region or ships with prompt strike capabilities operating in the northern Indian Ocean. This would serve as a deterrent to the Taliban and offer an immediate response option should they organise or facilitate terrorist activities, such as training camps.

Third, NATO should make clear to the Afghan government that its military presence in the country is linked to its willingness to engage seriously in the peace talks. NATO will withdraw its forces if Kabul drags its feet and proves intransigent. Power-sharing will involve painful concessions from the government side as well, particularly in conceding a major Taliban influence in the more conservative countryside. Thus, it is important to make clear to President Ghani that he cannot just spin out the talks indefinitely to prolong the NATO presence. As the Afghan parties are finding it difficult to make peace between themselves, the Doha talks urgently need a heavyweight political figure or diplomat to function as a mediator to keep the parties’ feet to the fire. This person needs to be supported by a troika or contact group of the major powers. This formula proved successful in convincing Milošević to withdraw from Kosovo in 1999 and in persuading Iran to freeze its nuclear programme in the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Both of these depended on the ability of Russia and China to work in a common interest with the US and the EU.

An early challenge for the new policy of international engagement of the Biden administration and of the EU’s ambition to be a geopolitical actor will be to work with Russia and China to bring about an Afghan settlement. This is not as impossible as the current tensions between Washington, Moscow and China might suggest. Russia has been highly active in Afghan diplomacy. It has held a number of meetings for the Afghan parties in Moscow and has appointed a senior diplomat, Zamir Kabulov, as its special Afghanistan envoy. It has no desire to see the Taliban once again sponsor terrorist groups in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Russia’s other Central Asian neighbours. China, for its part, has important stakes in mining and copper extraction in Afghanistan which cannot be exploited until there is more stability in the country. It too will not want the Taliban to stir up unrest among its own Muslim Uighur community in its far west.

NATO needs as much a diplomatic strategy for Afghanistan as a prolonged military presence

Fourth, the NATO allies must think harder about how they can engage Afghanistan’s neighbours to stop interfering in the country by either directly supporting or turning a blind eye to the activities of the Taliban and other extremist groups. Pakistan is key here. The allies have long lamented the dubious role of Pakistan in Afghanistan and its inability, or unwillingness, to rein in its own jihadist groups that operate from its northwestern tribal and frontier provinces. Pakistan’s influence cannot be ignored, let alone eliminated. So, the allies have an interest in inviting Pakistan into a structured regional framework that gives it a voice but also constrains its ability to go it alone and play underhand games. Giving this regional framework a role in promoting cross-border investments in transport, energy, digital transformation, and education and skills, backed by the creation of a regional development bank and linked to World Bank and Asian Development Bank loans, might give Pakistan the incentives it needs to see a stable Afghanistan as an opportunity, instead of a risk to its own security. Chinese cooperation will be key here as well given Beijing’s close relationship with Islamabad, but the West needs first and foremost to get its own act together when it comes to exerting real pressure on Pakistan.

In conclusion, NATO needs as much a diplomatic strategy for Afghanistan as a prolonged military presence. Otherwise, at their autumn meeting in six months’ time, the defence ministers might well find themselves impaled on the same dilemma with which they grappled last week. At the same time, the sorry saga of the last 20 years of the international effort to build a viable, democratic Afghan state points to some general lessons that diplomats should bear in mind as they seek to resolve conflicts in Africa, the Middle East, and other parts of the world.

Peace agreements need to be genuine with detailed reciprocal commitments and timetables – not simply temporary ceasefires or agreements to negotiate with no fixed objectives or timelines. They should certainly not make the obligations of international peacekeepers much more concrete and constraining (such as fixed withdrawal dates) than those of the warring parties.

The international community should not withdraw its forces before the peace agreement has been finalised and implemented. International supervision needs to be upheld.

To answer The Clash, NATO seems destined to stay

A package of measures needs to be mapped out by the major international institutions working together to give new power-sharing governments in post-conflict states incentives to abide by the peace process. For instance, loans and investments, market access, technology transfers, and debt forgiveness. This can also involve security assistance and defence capacity building. On the other hand, disincentives need to be built into such a comprehensive package to discourage violations and backsliding. For instance, well-defined sanctions, cancellation of support packages, withdrawal of diplomatic relations, or criminal indictments and prosecutions.

None of this is guaranteed to work, but peace rarely takes root where none of these things are attempted in the first place.

Reuters quoted a NATO diplomat last week as saying that “NATO had lost in Afghanistan but could not be seen to lose miserably”. This strikes me as too pessimistic. The alliance still has levers to play with but it needs to use them quickly and collectively. To answer The Clash, NATO seems destined to stay. But to avoid the ‘double trouble’, it needs a strategy to make staying far more productive.

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