NATO withdraws from Afghanistan: short-term and long-term consequences for the Western alliance

#CriticalThinking

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for emerging security challenges at NATO

Back in March, when NATO’s foreign and defence ministers held their first meetings with United States Secretary of State Tony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, they announced that they would follow President Biden’s decision to withdraw the international forces from Afghanistan by the end of August. In reality, they had no other option. ‘In together, out together’ had always been the alliance’s mantra since NATO first took over the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission from the United Nations in August 2003.

At the same time, the NATO presence in Afghanistan had been so dependent on US air power, logistics, medical and contractor support, and intelligence that no ally believed that they could realistically remain with a military presence in Afghanistan if the US decided on a total pull-out. Even Turkey, the ally running Kabul International Airport and the one most committed to a long-term presence and role in Afghanistan, insisted on major US financial and logistics support if it was to operate the airport on behalf of the Western diplomatic community once the NATO troops had departed.

Yet, it was no secret, even back in March, that many NATO allies were unhappy with Biden’s withdrawal decision. Some, such as the United Kingdom and Germany, even made their unease public. The German Bundestag had only recently agreed to extend the mandate of the German troops in Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan into 2022. Many of the allies recognised the painfully slow progress in Afghan security and reconstruction, but they had come to accept that there was no viable alternative to staying in Afghanistan, given the persistence of the Taliban and ISIL threat and the obvious weaknesses of the Afghan government in Kabul.

At the same time, the price of staying on seemed to be tolerable. No NATO soldier had been killed for the past 18 months. The Afghan security forces were doing the lion’s share of the fighting and taking the casualties, with 70,000 deaths over the past three years, as the NATO mission transitioned to a rear training role known as Resolute Support in 2014. At 9,000 non-US and around 4,000 US troops, this ongoing presence did not make Afghanistan a contentious issue for public opinion in NATO countries. Certainly, opinion polling in the US showed that a majority would like to end the mission and supported the president’s withdrawal decision, but there was no pressure from Congress or the media for this troop withdrawal to be immediate or unconditional.

If the NATO troops left prematurely and the Taliban returned to power, these gains would be jeopardised

Allies were concerned that Biden’s withdrawal decision gave the Taliban little incentive to negotiate a power sharing deal with the Afghan government in Doha and every reason to believe that they could gain absolute power by winning on the battlefield. At the same time, a demoralised Afghan army would have little reason to fight and sacrifice if it felt abandoned by its international partners and sponsors. Although allies were clearly frustrated by the corruption and venality of the Afghan government and elites, they recognised that international assistance to Afghanistan over 20 years had brought many benefits to the country in terms of rising life expectancy, the emancipation of women, girls’ education, as well as many individual, political and media freedoms. Not to speak of sparing NATO countries further terrorist attacks originating from Afghan territory for 20 years.

If the NATO troops left prematurely and the Taliban returned to power, these gains would be jeopardised. This could turn into a public relations disaster for the alliance and fuel perceptions among NATO soldiers who had served in Afghanistan, as well as the general public, that all their sacrifices – over 4,000 killed and tens of thousands wounded – had been for nothing. Thus, given the lack of viable alternatives, Afghanistan was rather like the Cold War: a game of strategic patience where it was enough to maintain the status quo and not expect any short-term improvement in the situation. Just because not everything could be achieved was not a reason to sacrifice the enormous progress that the Western military presence had secured for two decades – a challenge of ‘strategic forbearance’.

For this reason, the ‘endless war’ slogan used by Trump and Biden struck many allies as wrong and unhelpful as it implied that there is something bad about open-ended and long-term US military commitments overseas, even at a sustainable cost. This is the principle on which NATO is based. Thus, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, without suffering a military defeat, has inevitably raised questions about the solidity of the US commitment to its international security role. Biden has contributed to this unease by framing the US withdrawal from Afghanistan as the US turning its back on overseas nation-building and stabilisation roles in general. Yet, failure in Afghanistan does not mean that US-led nation-building always fails, nor that nation-building and stabilisation missions are by definition never in the US national interest.

A second reason for the allies’ disquiet with the Biden administration was that once the withdrawal decision had been made, little was done to prepare for the aftermath. Afghanistan was not even discussed at the NATO summit in June. The US assumed that because the Afghan security forces were 300,000 large and equipped and trained by the Pentagon, they would be able to resist the Taliban onslaught. There was little analysis of key issues such as poor military leadership, weak command and control, inadequate logistics supply, insufficient air support and medical evacuation, poor motivation and corruption. These factors would induce the Afghan troops to desert rather than fight, as this was an army that was designed to operate only in conjunction with the NATO international forces.

Yet, no arrangements were put in place before the Kabul government collapsed

The US also withdrew its contractors who played a vital role in maintaining the equipment of the Afghan security forces, particularly the air force. NATO and the US emphasised their determination to continue to support the Afghan army from outside the country and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg spoke about doing this from training centres in the Gulf or Jordan. Yet, no arrangements were put in place before the Kabul government collapsed. The US spoke about acquiring military bases in the region to locate over-the-horizon air assets and special forces near Afghanistan to strike at ISIL and Al Qaeda terrorist operatives should the Taliban tolerate their continued presence in the country. Yet, it could not persuade Pakistan or Central Asian countries such as Uzbekistan or Tajikistan to grant the access. Russia pre-empted this move by reactivating its own bases in these two countries, sending more forces and organising joint exercises to reinforce border security.

There was also a sense among European allies that the US was too slow in drawing up a comprehensive evacuation plan for Western nationals and Afghan civilians who worked for the alliance’s military forces, Western NGOs or the old Afghan government and those who wished to leave the country. Promises had been made to guarantee their safety and there was increasing evidence that they were being targeted as ‘collaborators’ by the Taliban. The evacuations started after nearly all the troops had left Afghanistan, meaning that NATO countries had to suddenly send troops back to Kabul to organise the flights out of the country. This improvisation led to scenes of chaos during several days at Kabul International Airport. Although the US and its allies do deserve credit for the 120,000 people that they managed to airlift out of the country in just over two weeks, they have now left Afghanistan, leaving thousands of Afghans and many US and European nationals behind because there was no time to arrange their evacuation.

During a special NATO foreign ministers meeting on 20 August, many European allies asked the US to extend the evacuation operation beyond 31 August but the US rejected these appeals, wanting to keep to Biden’s schedule of full departure by that date. Yet, given the scale and urgency of the evacuations, many allies did not understand the logic of abandoning Bagram Airfield already a month beforehand. Having a second airport would have made the evacuations considerably easier and Bagram, some 30 miles north of Kabul, was much more secure and less prone to terrorist attacks than the Kabul airport, which is in the middle of a densely populated, urban area. In sum, many allies felt that these very predictable issues should have been discussed and fixed by the North Atlantic Council before the troop withdrawal began. The lack of planning and consultation and all the last-minute improvisation, on top of the victory of the Taliban, have harmed NATO’s image and reputation and strained transatlantic relations, both in public and private.

There are some immediate consequences for the alliance.

Stoltenberg has insisted that NATO will conduct a ‘lessons learned’ exercise once the evacuations had halted

The first is why the intelligence failure? Both the Biden administration and NATO’s Secretary-General stressed repeatedly that they were surprised by the speed of the Taliban advance and the collapse of the Afghan state. Napoleon famously said that “it is forgivable to lose a battle but not to be taken by surprise”. Stoltenberg has insisted that NATO will conduct a ‘lessons learned’ exercise once the evacuations had halted. This will pose many searching questions for the alliance as one of its priorities over the last decade has been to enhance its strategic awareness and intelligence sharing. A whole new division has been set up at NATO Headquarters for this purpose. Both the US and NATO had considerable intelligence assets in Afghanistan. They had been there for 20 years and knew all there was to know about the government, the Afghan security forces, and the Taliban. The US had been negotiating with the Taliban in Doha for over a year. This abundance of knowledge and experience of conditions inside Afghanistan makes the intelligence failure all the more inexplicable. NATO will need to take a fresh look at its forecasting and assessment mechanisms and the ability of its civilian and military experts to challenge conventional wisdom, which tends to veer on the side of optimism, and speak truth to power.

The second immediate concern is in the area of political consultation and proper strategic planning. Back in 2019, French President Macron proclaimed that NATO was politically “brain dead”. This remark provoked a lot of outrage within NATO at the time, but Afghanistan shows that Macron had a point about the alliance’s ability to go beyond day-to-day crisis response and engage in robust long-term thinking and scenario planning. The allies followed the US line without serious debate, notwithstanding the likely consequences. European views, for instance a French proposal backed by the UK to set up a diplomatic protection zone inside Kabul, were never seriously considered, nor was the idea of extending the evacuation air bridge beyond 31 August.

Given NATO’s leading role in Afghanistan, the organisation should have managed and coordinated evacuation operations at Kabul International Airport, but each ally seemed to be running its own purely national operation. As a result, almost empty aircraft were departing Kabul when thousands were waiting on the tarmac to be evacuated. At one stage, US troops blocked a group of Dutch citizens trying to reach the airport. With more advance and joint planning, aircraft seats could have been shared, the processing of flights and document better coordinated, and more people evacuated before the deadline. As a result, making sure that NATO adequately consults and coordinates in a crisis, that the NATO crisis management machinery really works and that allies don’t immediately revert to national responses will be a core task of NATO’s new Strategic Concept exercise which kicks off this autumn.

Third, NATO has made a great deal of its role as a military trainer and capacity builder of local armed forces, as seen in Ukraine, Georgia, and Iraq, as well as Afghanistan, in recent years. The NATO Secretary-General has constantly trumpeted this role as one of the core pillars of the new NATO 2030 initiative. Yet, the debacle in Kabul demonstrates that throwing resources at a problem doesn’t necessarily solve it. NATO began its training mission for the Afghan security forces 12 years ago. The US alone has pumped over $170bn into this effort. The bitter result is that the US and NATO have not so much equipped and modernised the Afghan army but rather their Taliban adversaries. These are now driving around Kabul in US Humvees, sporting US uniforms and M16 rifles. They have taken over large amounts of US equipment including helicopters, aircraft, and artillery, although the US was able to dismantle some of this equipment before leaving.

NATO can ill afford a second operational fiasco in Iraq

Consequently, the alliance will now have to revise its entire approach to its training activities and establish much more rigorous benchmarking and validation mechanisms. The place to begin is in Iraq, where Italy has recently taken over the command of the NATO training mission at a moment when it is being expanded beyond Baghdad with the establishment of regional training centres. The Iraqi army has displayed many of the same characteristics as the Afghan security forces: low morale and discipline except for the elite special forces, poor leadership, internal corruption, and ethnic divisions. They also have disciplined and battle-hardened potential adversaries in the shape of the Kurdish fighters, the Iranian-sponsored Popular Mobilization Units, and a resurgent ISIL. NATO will need to evaluate quickly and honestly what went wrong in Afghanistan and apply the lessons where relevant to the Iraqi army. The latter has already shown a capacity for collapse, as when they retreated in the face of far smaller ISIL units around Mosul in 2013. NATO can ill afford a second operational fiasco in Iraq.

Beyond these immediate challenges, there are some longer-term consequences for the alliance in Southwest Asia.

One is how it deters the Taliban from once more serving as a base and sanctuary for international jihadist terrorism. This was already difficult when NATO had troops on the ground, as the growth of ISIL Khorasan in Afghanistan in recent years demonstrates. The US can always resort to drone strikes, but gathering accurate intelligence will be harder for the CIA and the NSA once the US no longer has an intelligence structure inside the country.

The allies are hoping that they can use the levers of diplomatic recognition and economic aid to force the Taliban to behave reasonably and even fight ISIL. Afghanistan, facing drought and one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world, will certainly be highly dependent on international aid and technical assistance for decades to come. Already under the previous government, 70% of the state budget was made up of foreign assistance and the US has frozen Afghanistan’s financial reserves held by US banks.

NATO forces will once again need to protect borders and critical national infrastructure

Now that they have gone from fighting to governing, the Taliban will desperately need to access foreign aid and technical support. The Taliban are already reaching out to Turkey and Qatar to help them run the Kabul airport. They have promised the US and the international community that they will not sponsor terrorism again and made some hopeful noises about power-sharing, amnesty for members and supporters of the previous regime, and allowing women to retain their jobs. But allied experts are sceptical regarding these promises. The Taliban are far from a cohesive group. Local commanders may ignore the strictures from central leaders in Kabul and continue to protect the jihadists, as will the Taliban over the border in Pakistan.

Jihadists everywhere have celebrated the Taliban return to power as a great victory of their cause over the US and the West. Jihadists are encouraged and recruitment will be easier. So, Western security officials are anticipating an increase in the terrorist threat to Europe within a few years. There are already media reports that UK intelligence officials from MI6 and the Joint Intelligence Committee have visited the region and held talks with the Taliban and Pakistani officials to assess the depth of the Taliban’s commitment to deny support to the jihadists and even try to push them out of Afghanistan.

Yet, these are early days and, as a precautionary measure, counter-terrorism – an issue which has had a low priority in NATO in recent years – will move higher up the agenda, especially if Al Qaeda and ISIL, benefiting from sanctuary in Afghanistan, are able to launch spectacular mass-casualty attacks as happened on 9/11. NATO forces will once again need to protect borders and critical national infrastructure. There will be a premium on special forces carrying out pre-emptive strikes and the possibility of jihadists gaining access to sophisticated weapons and chemical, biological and radioactive materials is one that will occupy NATO planners. The nexus between Al Qaeda and ISIL expanding in Afghanistan and Africa is one that those planners will also want to track closely.

Another issue concerns Russia and China. In Brussels, both are seen as the winners of NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. This is sometimes viewed in US and European security discussions as a zero-sum game as if a loss for one is automatically and proportionally a win for the other. Allies have noted that both Moscow and Beijing have reacted more positively to the return of the Taliban and have opened good channels of communication with its leadership. Whereas Russia is seen as concerned about the infiltration of terrorism into Central Asia, China is seen as having major opportunities to exploit Afghanistan’s mineral resources and potential role as a transport link towards Pakistan and the Middle East. China already has a major investment stake in the Aynak copper mine complex. The Taliban have already welcomed the prospect of significant Chinese economic investments.

Biden justified the US withdrawal from Afghanistan by the need to free up resources and time to devote to balancing China in the Asia-Pacific

Now, the problem for NATO is that all the countries with leverage in Afghanistan today are not its friends, including Pakistan and Iran. The one exception is Turkey, which has good relations with the Taliban and will maintain a large embassy in Kabul. Consequently, any dwindling residual influence that the alliance does preserve in Southwest Asia will largely be at the discretion of Turkey and pass through Ankara and the prism of Turkish perspectives. The EU is already reaching out to Turkey to help it stop the mass migration of Afghans into Europe while reviving its own difficult domestic debate about EU solidarity in accepting quotas for the resettlement of Afghan evacuees in EU member states, of which Austria and Slovenia are currently resisting. NATO had hoped to discuss Afghanistan as part of its future dialogue with both Beijing and Moscow, but now that it has lost nearly all influence in the country, these capitals will see less interest or reason to talk to NATO. The best that can be hoped for is a dialogue on counter-terrorism if Beijing and Moscow perceive a threat to their own security emanating from Afghan territory.

Finally comes policy towards the Asia-Pacific. Biden justified the US withdrawal from Afghanistan by the need to free up resources and time to devote to balancing China in the Asia-Pacific. Yet, many European allies will react in the opposite sense. After Afghanistan they will be hesitant to embark on another foreign mission far from their home bases where they are totally dependent on US military enablers and political decision-making. The European allies have questioned why they could not have stayed at the Kabul airport with their own resources and why there was no planning within the EU for a standalone European operation, even if for a short period. France is using the Kabul debacle to make once again the case for European self-reliance and strategic autonomy. The EU High Representative, Josep Borrell, has once more called for the setting up of an EU Rapid Reaction Force of 50,000 into which the existing Battlegroup formations could be folded, with the priority to be given to an initial entry, spearhead force of 5,000 soldiers modelled on what the US sent to Kabul Airport or what France has sent to the Sahel for its Barkhane mission. This said, it remains to be seen whether this idea will gain any more traction after Kabul than it has done during previous periods of doubt over US commitment. Other allies will worry about the rifts that have opened up between Washington and Europe in the wake of Afghanistan. These allies, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe, will argue that although Afghanistan was a failure, it was never the alliance’s primary mission which remains collective defence vis-a-vis Russia in Europe. Their overriding concern will be to ensure that the US military will not cut and run from their defence as it has done in Kabul in recent days.

All this means that after Afghanistan, NATO is less likely to take on any new role in the Asia-Pacific. Sticking to core, treaty-based commitments in Europe and not investing in risky nation-building deployments far from home is likely to be its mantra. Keeping the US forces locked into military exercises in the Baltic and the Black Sea will be far more important than following the US Navy to the Indian Ocean.

Of course, the question for NATO now that its troops have departed is what can it usefully do to influence the politics inside Kabul? Is the alliance still a player or is it completely sidelined?

Afghanistan was a collective NATO responsibility, and that must be collectively shared

First and foremost, the allies must refrain from the traditional blame game now being played out in the US and European media and as politicians come under pressure from Congressional and parliamentary inquiries. Afghanistan was a collective NATO responsibility, and that must be collectively shared. The Kabul evacuations demonstrate that there are certain military and security tasks that only the US can perform. As long as this is the case, Europeans need the US. This is no time to weaken the transatlantic security partnership through the self-inflicted wounds of a blame game.

Second, the North Atlantic Council should do more than conduct a backward-looking ‘lessons learned’ exercise. It needs to devise a strategy to determine how NATO’s weight and assets can be used to help the international community moderate the Taliban’s behaviour and deal with the fallout from the Afghan crisis. For instance, the allies can coordinate the return of their embassies to Kabul, provide over-the-horizon support to Turkey in the running of Kabul airport, and set up a specific intelligence group to analyse the implantation and activities of jihadists in Afghanistan, as well as their funding and support networks. They can work with the EU and Turkey to draw up a contingency plan to manage a large outpouring of Afghan refugees and migrants towards Europe and offer help to transit countries. The UN Security Council has just passed a resolution calling on Kabul to open the frontiers and allow Afghans and remaining foreign nationals to leave Afghanistan if they so wish. China and Russia abstained, but at least did not block this resolution. NATO could work with the growing Afghan diaspora in the US, Canada and Europe to set up media organisations and broadcasting networks to break the Taliban’s media monopoly and give Afghans alternative sources of news and information.

The allies could also agree on a common policy towards recognition of the Taliban government. They could set performance criteria and benchmarks for offering economic and humanitarian assistance to the Taliban government, coupled with much more stringent anti-corruption measures than those applied to the previous government in Kabul. Moreover, NATO should support the UN in establishing a major civilian, humanitarian, and monitoring presence throughout Afghanistan. The alliance could offer the UN over-the-horizon security protection as it did in the Balkans in the 1990s.

NATO should also consider how it could develop its relations with India, Pakistan, and the Central Asian countries that will continue to have a large security interest in Afghan developments. A dialogue with African countries affected by the expansion of Al Qaeda and ISIL cells across their territories needs to be established urgently and given real substance. Secretary-General Stoltenberg has said that NATO will not abandon Afghanistan, even if now it has to fall back on diplomatic and economic instruments rather than its better-known military capabilities. The more the alliance is seen to be active and creative in this area, and the more the US uses NATO properly to coordinate policy with its Canadian and European allies, the easier it will be for NATO to repair the reputational damage and the tensions across the Atlantic brought about by the Afghan endgame.

This puts NATO in a delicate situation as it embarks on its new Strategic Concept

In conclusion, the chaotic and undignified NATO withdrawal from Kabul marks the end of the European honeymoon with the Biden administration. Despite all the talk of NATO as a ‘sacred obligation’ and of consulting the European allies on all the big strategic issues, the Afghan imbroglio has underlined that Washington will still act unilaterally and according to its own interests when it feels under pressure. Undoubtedly, the Biden administration’s emphasis on multilateralism, the upholding of human rights and democratic values and its commitment to Europe’s defence is good news for NATO – and massively more reassuring than the policies of the Trump administration. Yet, Afghanistan has shown that there are limits to US military and financial commitments as opposed to aspirational diplomacy and verbal declarations.

This puts NATO in a delicate situation as it embarks on its new Strategic Concept. Afghanistan has damaged the alliance’s reputation for strategic competence and thus its credibility. The European allies will be anxious that this damage does not undermine the seriousness of the US commitment to Europe in the eyes of Russia or the allies themselves. Yet, they will be mindful that when it comes to the rest of the world, and particularly the Asia-Pacific, they have to make their own analyses and defend their own positions and interests in the future without unduly alienating Washington. How to do so in more than words will be the big debate Europeans need to have among themselves as the last NATO transport aircraft brought the remaining alliance soldiers home from Kabul – now back in the hands of the Taliban almost exactly 20 years after 9/11.

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