By THO Contributor, Arianna Guerrero
News in the last months has been flooded with updates on the growing instability within Afghanistan and the surge of the Taliban within the country. The US’ departure after 20 years from being in the region brought an end to America’s longest and most inconclusive external war but the departure has left the country desperate for some form of stability. Images of Taliban fighters flooding the Afghan capital and civilians urging the US to continue their stay within the country had left many leaders wondering what would come next. As weeks have progressed, the future of the region is still unclear. For many experts, the role that other neighboring countries will have to play will be important to observe, especially given the opportunity that the US’ departure provides as a chance for other countries to play a mediating role in the region. Already, talks about the tensions within Afghanistan have already been occurring between NATO officials and Chinese diplomats. When it comes to understanding the development of this most recent Taliban takeover, it is important to observe the situation through the various lenses of the most important stakeholders and the implications of this decision especially within a NATO context.
Framing of the Situation and Introduction of US decision:
The US decision to exit the region is not a new one and was widely discussed during the previous presidential administrations. Despite the signing of an executive order mandating the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan by Jan 15, 2021, the plan was abandoned after several members of the White House agreed that the consequences of such a precipitous exit would exceed the benefits of pulling out. The same repercussions that prevented a withdrawal from Afghanistan in the past were the same ones that have currently been playing out after Biden followed through with this decision. For former NATO commander General Wesley Clark, the crisis in Afghanistan is the result of, “20 years of American misjudgements, of poor prioritizations, and failed policies.” In many ways, his general sentiment of the matter reflects that of numerous experts who have followed the American involvement in the region over the past 20 years. “They have reached the end of the road,” General Clark insists. For him, the Biden administration realized that they were not going to be able to create the stabilized government and leadership hierarchy in Afghanistan that would have been able to more effectively support their people. In many ways, this realization was also not something unique to Biden’s administration and had been a sentiment shared over the past presidencies. For some, the decision to withdraw shows a disregard for human rights and puts America’s own wellbeing before that of the people living within the region. This prioritization of America, was refuted by Biden who defended his position stating that, “there was no good time to leave.” This leaves a very divided mass of people, some who stand by Biden’s decision to put an end to a drawn-out war that did not seem to have or to be able to achieve a conclusive and safe end and those who viewed the decision as a disaster, a failure to uphold the security of civilians in Afghanistan, and as a, “stain on America’s reputation.” The two sides of the argument stress the fact that unlike Biden mentioned, the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan should not have revolved around “when” but rather “how” they would withdraw and the failure to prioritize this was for many, the cause of the current Taliban takeover.
Implications for NATO: Unraveling Debacle and Undermining Articles of Importance:
NATO’s role in this withdrawal is of vital importance given that for a rare time, allies deem the Afghanistan exit as a “unilateral” decision by Biden. NATO was deemed by many European leaders to have fallen out of relevance especially during the years of Donald Trump’s administration. With the entry of Biden, the hope was to return to a platform of influence but the recent decision to withdraw from Afghanistan suggests that this is not going to be the case. The criticism many EU security officials have expressed for the US decision to send home its 2,500 troops have been coupled with remarks that this action has weakened NATO and has, “raised questions about Europe’s security dependence on Washington.” The withdrawal is not only an end for the United States but it is also a “bitter end for the alliance’s longest-running mission, which involved 10,000 personnel from 36 countries.” Latvia’s defence minister, Artis Pabriks spoke out on a local radio stating that long-term missions such as this one are going to be unlikely for the future and said, “This era is over. Unfortunately, the West, and Europe in particular, are showing they are weaker globally.” The end of an era of what many deemed to be a traditional expansionist frame of mind with a commitment to progressive internationalism has placed in its stead, a weakened entry into a possible decade of “America First’- inspired reticence.
The remarks raised by this realization have been particularly shrewd when concerning their relevance to NATO and have put into question the validity of the ‘in together, out together’ motto. The UK’s former national security advisor, Lord Peter Ricketts said, “It looks like NATO has been completely overtaken by American unilateral decisions. The Afghanistan operation was always going to end some time, it was never going to go on forever, but the manner in which it has been done has been humiliating and damaging to NATO.” The decision to even intervene in this country in the first place was catalyzed by the al-Qaeda 9/11 attacks on the US and labeled the first and only time when the, “alliance invoked its article five collective defense principle, in which an attack on one ally is considered an attack on all.” For many, especially the NATO secretary-general Lord George Robertson, this principle has been subsequently abandoned by the Biden administration who consulted with allies on the situation in Afghanistan only after having shared the decision as a “fait accompli.” Thus, NATO allies didn’t offer their support to fill in the void after the exit of the US because there lacked the chance for a substantial and sustainable role in the region and there were not many willing to form a coalition of “like-minded” NATO countries willing to remain in Afghanistan. For many of these countries, their ability to engage in the region depends on the US’ governmental decisions especially when it comes to engaging with these countries. Even other countries such as Turkey and Italy were cited to have suggested an increased presence in Afghanistan in order to stabilize the region but the decision was deemed impossible given the lack of a robust military infrastructure available to them in comparison to the one provided by the US. This meant that even with a willingness to remain in the region, there was an acceptance of the dependence of these countries on the US government. As Merkel stated in a Financial Times article, “We must realize that when it comes to the NATO mission to Afghanistan, it was not possible to have an independent role for Germany or the European forces. We always said that we are basically dependent on the decisions of the US government.” This confession reflects much of what the decision by the US revealed in terms of the power and independence of NATO. In this same article, one former military commander who had served in Afghanistan confessed that NATO threats to Russia and other countries have been incognizant of the fact that even for a situation such as the one in Afghanistan, NATO allies are dependent on the American underpinning.
Future of US-NATO Cooperation/Dependence:
Already, NATO has revealed a lack of more centralized focus in the Afghanistan crisis and has thus deviated from its 2030 promise to uphold deeper political coordination. Where historically, countries have claimed to be transparent and coordinated in their decision-making, what happened in Afghanistan revealed that in some respects, decisions are made unilaterally. Lilith Verstrynge, a Podemos official, said, “It is time to make a shift towards greater sovereignty and the defence of our own interests.” The decision by the United States could be taken as a sign that NATO needs to also have a plan B and outline their objectives independent of those outlined by other countries. In thinking about those objectives, there is also a suggestion that NATO’s focus should no longer be in “nation-building’ but that, rather, those sorts of endeavors should be made narrower. NATO’s capacities within Afghanistan demonstrated a need to rethink the “basics.” In Afghanistan it was observed that even the forces trained by the alliance’s own program failed to provide and receive adequate preparation. These troops, according to Stoltenberg, despite years of support and training, were incapable of standing up against the Taliban in “stronger and better ways.” Rather than ending all of the rebuilding efforts, however, Lord Mark Sedwill, a senior NATO representative to Afghanistan, suggests that there should be a fortified focus being placed on the rebuilding of the efforts and practices currently in place in order to ensure a more focused intervention strategy should it be needed in the future.
So far, NATO’s focus has centered around ensuring the safe departure of personnel from Allied countries and “at-risk NATO-affiliated Afghans.” To that end, they have successfully been able to evacuate 2000 Afghans working for NATO and their families. NATO has also been working with allies to ensure that these families receive housing, care, and support. Meanwhile, they have suspended their support to Afghan authorities and have states that all future Afghan governments must comply with Afghanistan’s international obligations such as, “safeguarding the human rights of all Afghans, particularly women, children, and minorities; upholding the rule of law; allowing unhindered humanitarian access; and ensuring that Afghanistan never again serves as a safe haven for terrorists.” For many, however, any compliance for these objectives will be short-lived given the lack of stable government in the region. Already, women’s rights have been put at risk and it is hard to monitor the activity that is currently taking place there.
Conclusion - What comes next for Afghanistan, US endeavors, and the end of “All in, All Out” Era.
The US’ decision to withdraw from Afghanistan has been one that has not only brought upheaval for the citizens in the region but has completely inverted the traditional frameworks that existed between NATO and its allies. In many ways, Afghanistan was not just the United State’s war, it was a war that encompassed so many other countries and allies.
Warrell, Helen. “Nato Allies Urge Rethink On Alliance AFTER Biden's 'Unilateral' AFGHANISTAN EXIT.” Become an FT subscriber to read | Financial Times. Financial Times, August 2021. https://www.ft.com/content/3ea7e87e-ab3a-4e14-8396-8061420942b0.
NATO Secretary General Statement on Afghanistan
- “Our aim remains to support the Afghan government and security forces as much as possible. The security of our personnel is paramount. NATO will maintain our diplomatic presence in Kabul, and continue to adjust as necessary.”
The Latest: Pakistan urges Afghan leaders to talk to Taliban
- Several nations including the US have started to lessen and evacuate embassy staff from the Afghan capital. Stoltenberg says the 30-nation alliance intends to “maintain our diplomatic presence in Kabul, and continue to adjust as necessary.”
Afghanistan: NATO, EU, UN confirm they will not recognize government formed through military
- “NATO is monitoring the security situation very closely. We continue to coordinate with the Afghan authorities and the rest of the international community. We continue to maintain our diplomatic presence in Kabul. As the security of our personnel is paramount.”
- The Taliban escalated its offensive against the Afghan forces soon after the US forces started leaving Afghanistan in large numbers after the peace deal signed between Washington and the Taliban in February last year.
Retired NATO general blames ‘20 years of American misjudgements’ for the Afghanistan crisis, where the Taliban is advancing in the wake of US withdrawals
- Former NATO commander General Wesley Clark weighed in on the crisis in Afghanistan on CNN saying that the situation is the result of “20 years of American misjudgements, of poor prioritizations and failed policies.”
- In his opinion, the Biden administration thought they reached the end of the road and that they were not going to help to create an Afghanistan government that supported its people.” Without this government support,
Afghanistan: two decades of NATO help leaves a failed and fractured state on the brink of civil war
- With the early departure of US and NATO troops, experts warn that the Taliban could take control of the country within 6 months.
Insurgents currently control the “strategically important province of Helmand, and control or contest territory nearly every province in the war-torn country.”
The insurgents have already forced thousands of troops belonging to the US-trained Afghan army to surrender or flee
The most notable coalition of militias fighting back against the Taliban’s onslaught is called the Second Resistance which is led by Ahmad Massoud
- “While these tribal militias might be able to defend themselves, this was far from the objective of the US-led coalition. The goal was to build a national Afghan army that could become the sole legitimate fighting force.”
Failure to do this was due to the US’ inability to figure out a way to best support the Afghan military
It has not only shown the deviation from the “in together, out together” principle which led to the entry into Afghanistan in the first place but it has also signalled a possible return to an “America First” approach to foreign policy endeavors. The meaning of this departure from the region extends beyond a simple withdrawal, or the end of twenty years of inconclusive results and instability, it serves to highlight the subconscious dependence of NATO countries on US “security guarantees.” In many ways, the presence of the US in Afghanistan was never meant to last forever, and in the same way, the US’s role as “global policeman” was never truly going to be a constant. The withdrawal from Afghanistan may signal to allies that, as much as it would like to be believed, the US is not as dependent on NATO military and decision frameworks as NATO is on the US. Ensuring and defining some form of personal security will have to be a priority for NATO allies in the near future, especially as the era of US expansiveness remains uncertain and as certain foreign policy endeavors are re-analyzed over the coming years.