15 August 2021
Various media outlets are reporting that the Afghan president Ashraf Ghani is in emergency talks with US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad and other top NATO officials as the Taliban enter the outskirts of Kabul. A transfer of power to a “transitional administration” appears imminent.
The Taliban issued a statement saying they have “no plans to take the city by force” and they have no intention of “taking revenge” against those serving in the Afghan government or military. The Taliban have overrun most of Afghanista in just over a week, despite the hundreds of billions of dollars spent by the US and NATO over nearly two decades to build up Afghan security forces. A few days ago, the US military estimated it would be a month before the capital would come under insurgent pressure—the latest in a long line of military misjudgements in the country.
The Taliban’s advances can be attributed primarily to the erosion of morale and cohesion among the government’s security forces and political leadership. According to analysis by the International Crisis Group, the “surrender of so many districts and urban centres does not necessarily reveal domestic support for the Taliban as much as it underscores the deep alienation of many local communities from a highly centralised government often influenced by the priorities of its foreign donors”.
US commentators are drawing analogies with the Vietnam War and the evacuation from Saigon in 1975, while UK commentators are calling the crisis “the biggest single policy disasters since Suez” in 1956.
US president Joe Biden has authorised an additional 1,000 US troops for deployment to Afghanistan in support of the existing 5,000 US troops on the ground helping to evacuate staff and officials from the US embassy to Kabul International Airport. The airport is now the only route out of the country with the Taliban now holding all of the country’s border crossings.
Turkey, whose forces in Afghanistan have always comprised of noncombatant troops, had offered in June to guard and run Kabul International Airport after the NATO troops’ withdrawal. Talks between Ankara and Washington on logistic and financial support for the mission were ongoing, but such a mission now seems unlikely.
About 18,000 Afghans have applied for special immigration visas to the United States, but to date only about 1,200 have been evacuated. The UN has warned that 18.4 million people already require humanitarian assistance and 390,000 people have been displaced by the conflict this year.
In a statement on 13 August following a meeting of the North Atlantic Council, the NATO Secretary General said that “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 statement added that “NATO Allies are deeply concerned about the high levels of violence caused by the Taliban’s offensive, including attacks on civilians, targeted killings, and reports of other serious human rights abuses. The Taliban need to understand that they will not be recognised by the international community if they take the country by force. We remain committed to supporting a political solution to the conflict”.
In addition to continued funding of the Afghan security forces—NATO member states along with the United States were committed to providing up to $4 billion until 2024—and a diplomatic presence inside the country, NATO's support to Afghanistan included a commitment to out-of-country training for Afghan special forces. This training was reported to have begun in Turkey at the end of July.
In a statement at the end of July, NATO said that roughly $72 million worth of supplies and equipment had been supplied to the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces this year, ranging from medical supplies to high-tech combat simulators, hospital X-ray machines, and specialist equipment to defuse bombs. The equipment has been funded through the NATO-run Afghan National Army Trust Fund. As of May, total contributions made to the Trust Fund since 2007 amounted to around $3.4 billion.
These commitments to maintain a strong diplomatic and security relationship with the Afghan Government have now been overtaken by events. Given the dramatic shift in the balance in power on the ground in Afghanistan, the terms of any political solution will now be largely dictated by the Taliban. To ameliorate the likely further suffering of the Afghan people, NATO member states need prioritise emergency aid relief, including robust funding increases for UN agencies and other humanitarian response actors. In the face of this crisis NATO needs to shift its support from military to humanitarian aid for Afghan civilians.
Timeline of NATO’s involvement in Afghanistan
12 September 2001: NATO invokes its mutual defence clause for the first (and so far, only time) in the alliance's seven-decade history, after the 9/11 attacks on the United States by al-Qaeda.
2003: NATO takes command of an international coalition, ISAF, to restore peace to Afghanistan and to build up Afghan security forces.
2011: NATO's troop presence peaks with over 130,000 foreign troops from 51 allied and partner countries in Afghanistan. Since 2003, NATO claims to have trained hundreds of thousands of Afghan troops and police officers, including establishing an Afghan air force.
2015: ISAF is replaced by the NATO-led training operation, Resolute Support.
February 2020: President Trump secures a deal with the Taliban (without involving the Afghan Government or NATO allies), under which all US forces agree to leave Afghanistan by 1 May 2021.
April 2021: Resolute Support Mission numbers around 10,000 troops from 36 nations.
June 2021: At the NATO summit meeting the final declaration says “We affirm our commitment to continue to stand with Afghanistan, its people, and its institutions in promoting security and upholding the hard-won gains of the last 20 years".