NATO holds emergency talks on the situation in Afghanistan

17 August 2021

As US and NATO allies scramble to evacuate personnel from Kabul after the Taliban’s rapid takeover of Afghanistan, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg chaired a meeting of the North Atlantic Council (NAC) to discuss the security implications following the collapse of the Afghan government forces.

After the NAC meeting the Secretary General held a press briefing during which he blamed the swift collapse of Afghanistan’s armed forces on a failure of leadership in the country. “The Afghan political leadership failed to stand up to the Taliban”, adding: “This failure of Afghan leadership led to the tragedy we are witnessing today”. Referring to the way that the Afghan armed forces withered in the face of the Taliban offensive, Stoltenberg said that the speed of the collapse “had not been anticipated”.

Stoltenberg had tweeted two days ago that NATO was “helping keep Kabul airport open to facilitate and coordinate evacuations”, but there were chaotic scenes as crowds tried to board departing planes. In his press briefing Stoltenberg confirmed that NATO was maintaining a diplomatic presence of about 800 civilian personnel to help coordinate and facilitate the evacuation, notably in running air traffic control, aircraft fuelling operations and communications.

He said that NATO remained “committed to completing evacuations including of our Afghan colleagues, as soon as possible”, but Stoltenberg was unwilling to speculate on how long the airport would remain open. He called on the Taliban to “respect and facilitate the safe departure of all those who wish to leave”. Taliban checks at Kabul airport are making it more difficult to evacuate Afghans who worked for NATO forces, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said. “The situation is much more dangerous (for Afghans) because there is no promise of being let through at the Taliban checkpoints” AFP reported Maas saying ahead of a separate meeting of EU foreign ministers.

Stoltenberg also appealed to the Taliban to avoid “revenge or retribution” and ensure a “peaceful transfer of power to an inclusive government”.

NATO had been leading international security efforts in Afghanistan since 2003 but transitioned from combat operations in 2014 to focus on training the Afghan security forces. In response to questions during the press briefing, Stoltenberg said that there was a continuing need to fight international terrorism and he insisted that NATO’s efforts in Afghanistan had helped to weaken the Al Qaeda network. But, he conceded, “the big question we have to ask in an honest and clear-eyed way is: why didn’t the forces we trained and equipped and supported over so many years, why were they not able to stand up against the Taliban in a stronger and better way than they did?”.

The blame game within NATO member states has already started. Yesterday, Armin Laschet, the candidate from Angela Merkel’s party to succeed her as German chancellor, described the situation as “the biggest debacle that NATO has suffered since its founding” – seven decades ago. When asked during the press briefing whether he viewed this situation as an American failure or a NATO failure (for not insisting on a conditions-based withdrawal), Stoltenberg argued that NATO had to take collective responsibility for the outcome:

“after extensive consultations with the new Biden administration, this spring, this winter, all Allies agreed that the time had come to end the military presence, the NATO presence in Afghanistan, knowing that there were risks, knowing that there was possibility that the Taliban was going to regain control over the country. But Allies took that risk with open eyes, clear-eyed, because they knew that alternative was not to continue with the limited military presence. The alternative was most likely continue with an increased presence of NATO troops and forces, and to once again engage in combat.”

The UK Defence Minister Ben Wallace said in a number of interviews in recent days that he had consulted with NATO allies to see if there was support for a reconfigured alliance to continue the stabilisation force in Afghanistan without the United States. Wallace revealed that once other NATO allies – understood to include France and Germany – had rejected forming a ‘coalition of the willing’ without the United States, the UK concluded that it could not go it alone. During his press briefing, the Secretary General confirmed that he had not been involved in those consultations.