A selection of experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
It’s not a question of NATO being stuck in Afghanistan. The alliance’s military mission is only a part of the long-term efforts that have been undertaken to help Afghanistan develop into a stable and developing society in the years to come. It’s of key importance to support the Afghan security forces in different ways, but defeating the Taliban can never be only, or even primarily, a military matter. When the Afghan state is seen as legitimate, effective, and fair by all of its people, the country will have a reasonable chance at stability. It’s certainly in our interest to help in that process.
NATO is indeed stuck in Afghanistan—and the only way out is political. Two of NATO’s vital interests, countering terrorism and alleviating migration, depend upon a stable Afghanistan. Yet, as NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has publicly underscored, no purely military solution for the conflict exists.
Thus, NATO’s only viable exit strategy requires a meaningful peace process and the consolidation of a legitimate, capable Afghan state. These are tall orders—and merit individual NATO members’ continued civilian support alongside the alliance’s Resolute Support military training mission.
Spurring negotiations between the Afghan National Unity Government and the Taliban will require redoubled U.S. support and the backing of NATO partners and regional powers. Meanwhile, as the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces improve their fighting and organizational capabilities, Afghan and NATO officials must continue to focus equally on improving governance and galvanizing economic development.
Priorities include accelerating preparations for credible 2018 parliamentary and 2019 presidential elections, and securing modest yet meaningful reforms to make local government more accountable. Two final elements are supporting the Afghan government to execute its anticorruption agenda in the security sector and public institutions, and pushing for reforms to foster economic growth.
Yes—and it has been for many years. Arguably, the United States and NATO should have learned from history. In the nineteenth century, the Afghans twice defeated the Brits and in the twentieth century, they sent the Soviets packing.
After 9/11, the United States could have destroyed Taliban training grounds with cruise missiles, rather than go for a land invasion. Most NATO members were never fully committed to the Afghan war, and the Taliban sensed this weakness. U.S. troop withdrawals for electoral purposes further compounded the problem.
Now, NATO is stuck with no coherent strategy for Afghanistan, and public support for continuing a military presence is weak. History shows that it is always easier to invade a country than to exit one. When will our politicians learn?
Yes, NATO is stuck in Afghanistan: Not only will alliance forces be deployed in the Hindu Kush for the foreseeable future, but those nations participating in the Resolute Support Mission (RSM) in Afghanistan have just decided to increase troop numbers in the country.
The decision made at the 2012 NATO summit in Chicago to end the alliance-led ISAF mission in Afghanistan sent three key messages: to the Afghan government, that NATO had lost its patience with the country’s efforts to build up effective and loyal security forces; to the insurgents, that NATO’s determination to continue to fight with the Taliban was declining; and to Western electorates, that the alliance basically shared the public’s opinion that the Afghanistan operation had lost political momentum and was no longer worth the costs.
These powerful messages could not be retracted, despite NATO efforts to emphasize continuity and a readiness to complete RSM. The deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan is forcing NATO to remain in the country longer than envisaged. Yet alliance member states do not have the will to invest more in Afghanistan than they have already; nor do they have the leverage to influence the country’s efforts to provide its own security more effectively. NATO cannot declare failure in Afghanistan for political reasons, and so it finds itself in a Catch-22 situation.
NATO was, from the beginning, part of an essentially American war in Afghanistan, and the alliance has unvaryingly remained on board with the United States through every twist in the conflict since 2001. Whether the issue was troop surges, moving deadlines for drawdown or withdrawal, or signing long-term security pacts with the Afghan government, NATO followed the United States.
With the Trump administration, as American goals and reasons for staying in Afghanistan have shifted from defeating al-Qaeda to “obliterating ISIS, crushing al-Qaeda, [and] preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan,” NATO continues to be on board. President Trump justified his decision to commit to an indefinite war in Afghanistan in his August 21 speech, arguing that the security threats the United States faces from the country were still “immense.” He said that twenty U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations are active in Afghanistan and Pakistan—the highest concentration in any region in the world.
NATO leaders have echoed the same justification for the alliance’s continued engagement in Afghanistan. This narrative comes from the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General John W. Nicholson, and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who has frequently called Afghanistan the new frontline of the global war on terror. With no prospect for a political settlement in sight, and with the uncritically accepted perception of an “immense” threat to global security from Afghanistan cast as a powerful reason for a prolonged war there, it seems difficult for NATO to chart its own path in the country. Given the vaguely defined goals and ever-changing reasons for staying in Afghanistan, the alliance will likely remain trapped there for the foreseeable future.
Fabrice PothierConsulting senior fellow for defense policy and strategy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies
After more than fourteen years, Afghanistan is now NATO’s longest-running conflict. Yet NATO holds little of the blame. The problem lies with a long series of hits and misses.
U.S. policy has hovered since the beginning between finishing the job and cutting loose. Afghanistan’s tribal politics and rampant corruption continue to make a national government more of a project than a reality. Pakistan, a malign but indispensable neighbor, holds a substantial share of the blame as well. You add to the mix other regional powers, such as Iran and Russia, playing different proxies, and you have all the ingredients for the twenty-first century’s longest quagmire.
In the end, some European allies will chip in to match the U.S. surge, as they have always done at every call. One should not forget that when the Obama administration was contemplating a full withdrawal, the one ally that kept calling for strategic patience and staying power was Germany. With defeats in Syria and Iraq, IS will likely seek to turn Afghanistan will into another frontline of choice.
The real question is not whether the United States will be followed with a European surge, but what the mission should be about. Continuing to pretend that this is a train and assist mission will likely perpetuate the original sin of the conflict in Afghanistan: not preparing Western public opinion for a long and difficult but necessary fight.
At its recent defense ministers meeting, NATO has begun to reorient its strategic focus back to where it belongs, on Europe. The European allies showed solidarity with the United States after the 9/11 attacks by committing its forces to fight al-Qaeda and its Taliban supporters in Afghanistan, from where the attacks were planned. The allies have done more than their share in this operation and now understand that they need to concentrate on threats much closer to home—namely, Russian aggression and intimidation as well as on counterterrorism.
The decision taken this week by 23 EU member states to accelerate both operational and capability cooperation is a major step in this direction and a sign that Europe understands the implications of the strategic shocks that have transformed its security. The implications for the alliance’s Afghan mission are clear: this should no longer be a NATO-led operation. The United States should allow its allies to reorient toward the bigger threats and, at the same time, keep NATO viable with European leaders and publics.
Ashley J. TellisTata Chair for Strategic Affairs and senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Yes, but it’s not the worst outcome imaginable. For starters, it is worth remembering that NATO has already achieved much in Afghanistan, rebuilding a state that was decimated after decades of savage conflict. Although a great deal remains to be done, abandoning Kabul at this juncture would only increase the risk that the country would once again become a haven for international terrorists.
So how should NATO think of its commitment going forward? First, success in Afghanistan does not require destroying the Taliban comprehensively, but rather ensuring the survival of the Afghan state. Second, protecting Kabul necessitates supporting it financially (and for a long time to come), while strengthening the combat capabilities of the Afghan national security forces until they can operate independently. Providing Western financial assistance and continued troop contributions to a country beset by multiple weaknesses—including, but not limited to, dysfunctional governance—is undoubtedly taxing, but the alternative of abdication is far worse. Third, securing even minimal success in Afghanistan will require the West to press the Afghan government to address the impediments to political participation and the failures of governance, even as it confronts Pakistan about its continued sanctuary for various insurgent and terrorist groups.
An openness to engaging the Taliban in a dialogue to end the conflict in Afghanistan will be essential, but the possibility of success here hinges on strengthening Afghan national security forces so that both the Taliban and their external protectors—primarily Pakistan—conclude that an interminable war would not serve their political interests better than a negotiated peace with Kabul and Washington.