21 August 2021
On 20 August, the NATO Foreign Ministers met virtually “to discuss the difficult situation in Afghanistan”. The outcome of their deliberations (at least the sanitised public version) is a contained in a short statement released the same day.
The NATO statement begins by stating that the ministers are “united in our deep concern about the grave events in Afghanistan and call for an immediate end to the violence. We also express deep concerns about reports of serious human rights violations and abuses across Afghanistan. We affirm our commitment to the statement by the UN Security Council on 16 August, and we call for adherence to international norms and standards on human rights and international humanitarian law in all circumstances”.
This call for an immediate end to the violence and concern for human rights violations comes rather late in the day. During the almost 20 years of occupation US and NATO allies formed relationships with abusive warlords, relied on US and Afghan airstrikes in their fight against the Taliban with devastating impacts on civilians and children, and were apparently prepared to turn a blind eye to the deployment of CIA death squads, other war crimes by Western forces and US-backed anti-Taliban forces, as well as the widespread torture of detainees in Afghan prisons.
The NATO statement goes on to focus on ensuring the “safe evacuation of our citizens, partner country nationals, and at-risk Afghans”. During a press conference after the Foreign Ministers meeting, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, acknowledged that there had been disagreement between the ministers on how long the airport would be kept open. Although the United States has stated that the timeline ends on the 31 August, “several allies raised during the discussion today, the need to potentially extend that to be able to get more people out”, he said. However, he gave no indication of any movement on the timeline, which would seem to indicate that the US position continued to hold sway (as it has done throughout the Afghan campaign).
The statement also says that “The Afghan people deserve to live in safety, security and dignity, and to build on the important political, economic and social achievements they have made over the last twenty years”. It also calls on “all parties in Afghanistan to work in good faith to establish an inclusive and representative government, including with the meaningful participation of women and minority groups”. Next, the statement stresses that Afghanistan must “never again serves as a safe haven for terrorists”. The ministers claim that having over the last 20 years “successfully denied terrorists a safe haven in Afghanistan from which to instigate attacks”, they “will not allow any terrorists to threaten us” and “remain committed to fighting terrorism with determination, resolve, and in solidarity”.
The statement concludes by honouring “the service and sacrifice of all who have worked tirelessly over the last twenty years to realise a better future for Afghanistan”, before committing to “fully reflect on our engagement in Afghanistan and draw the necessary lessons”.
There is little that is unexpected in this insipid six-paragraph NATO statement. While there is no admittance of fault or responsibility on the part of NATO for the current situation, during his press conference Stoltenberg acknowledged that “there are hard questions that we need to ask ourselves over our engagement in Afghanistan”. He also reiterated that NATO was “clear-eyed about the risks of withdrawing our troops”, but that that the speed of the collapse of the Afghan political and military leadership, and armed forces “was not anticipated”. He also conceded that “there are many lessons to be learned” and he committed to conducting a “thorough assessment of NATO’s engagement in Afghanistan”. During questions he clarified that the details of how the assessment would be carried out had still to be agreed. Some of the questions that ought to be on the table include:
- Would it have been better to have responded to 9/11 through a law enforcement rather than a ‘war on terror’ paradigm? In other words, was the decision to go for regime change via military force in 2001 the right one? The events of the past two decades flow from that decision, which was made in the absence of UN security council authorisation. If the US was determined to use force, should it have limited it to a search-and-destroy operation against al-Qaida?
- If the trillion-dollar cost of the war would have been spent providing education, development and infrastructure in Afghanistan, could more have been achieved in the past 20 years under a Taliban-led administration rather than under military occupation? In other words, given that the US directly funded the Taliban to not attack supply lines for its troops, could the Taliban have been ‘bribed’ on a much grander scale through international aid to undertake a reform path?
- Why did the eventual political and military collapse of the Afghan Government come as a complete surprise to NATO when the evidence was available years ago that the occupation was failing? With the increasing likelihood of a Taliban-dominated ‘power-sharing’ government in Kabul, why would NATO be surprised that as many as a third of the 360,000 uniformed Afghans put on civilian clothes and walked away?
- To what extent was Afghan army morale fatally undermined by the US negotiating with the Taliban and reaching agreement with them in February 2020 behind the backs of both the Afghan Government and NATO allies?
- Was enough done to understood what ordinary rural Afghans (over 70% of the population and including many soldiers) really wanted? Was too much emphasis given to the views of educated Afghans in Kabul and, to a lesser extent, those in regional capitals where Provincial Reconstruction Teams operated?
- What was the impact of the mixed messages about human rights and democracy, when the rampant US fuelled corruption of the Afghan political class and the entitlement of the warlords was frequently overlooked or even encouraged during the occupation?
- To what extent did NATO officials contribute to misleading assessments about progress in Afghanistan, while hiding the inconvenient facts about ongoing failures? What will NATO do to improve the transparency of operational metrics for future missions? How might parliamentary oversight of NATO decision-making be improved in NATO member states?
- To what extent were US and NATO objectives in Afghanistan dictated by the interests of the US military industrial complex? How much of the $2.3tn the US government spent or obligated for the war ended up in the coffers of US military contractors?
- Should European NATO member states and Canada have a more honest debate about US primacy within NATO?
Despite President Biden’s criticism that Afghan forces were not willing to fight for themselves, over 60,000 Afghan troops gave their lives fighting the Taliban over the course of the war. The reality is that the NATO-backed government simply didn’t command the support of enough of the Afghan people, mainly due to a combination of the violence, corruption and poor governance.
A day before the Foreign Ministers met, on the 19 August, the NATO Military Committee convened a special meeting with its Resolute Support Mission Partners (Armenia, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Finland, Georgia, Mongolia, New Zealand, Sweden and Ukraine) to discuss the ongoing situation in Afghanistan, their common approach and the continued evacuation of NATO-affiliated staff. After the meeting, the chair of the committee, Admiral Bauer (Netherlands) posted a video on social media in which he addresses – on behalf of the Military Committee – all allied and partner troops who have served the NATO missions in Afghanistan. In the video, Admiral Bauer acknowledges the “heated debate in our Armed Forces and our societies” over the situation in Afghanistan and also the “deeply personal” nature of the sacrifices that were made. For those struggling with physical or mental scars, Bauer made this appeal: “please reach out to a buddy or a veteran organisation to get the help you need and very much deserve”.