After Afghanistan, US trying to mend trust gap with NATO

The United States and its NATO partners are conducting a review of lessons learned from their two-decade operation in Afghanistan

NATO flag flutters at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, (photo credit: REUTERS/FRANCOIS LENOIR)
NATO flag flutters at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium,

There is much soul-searching going on in Brussels, as the United States and its NATO partners conduct an ongoing review of lessons learned from their two-decade operation in Afghanistan.

Some experts wonder how far the US and NATO are willing to go in terms of accepting blame for the mission’s failings – not just during the chaotic, hurried evacuation of allied citizens and partners, but over the entirety of the 20-year undertaking. NATO Assistant Secretary-General for Operations John Manza told European Union lawmakers recently that one of the big lessons being discussed by his team is that of mission creep – a gradual shift in objectives during the course of a military campaign, often resulting in an unplanned long-term commitment.

“The desire to build a comprehensive, self-sustaining state proved to be a lot to ask in terms of time and resources. Generally speaking, the first seven or eight years in Afghanistan was an economy of force. In 2003, everything got overwhelmed by the war in Iraq, and Afghanistan never received a lot of strategic attention or resources. It wasn’t until 2008, in the final months of the administration of George W. Bush, that there was a comprehensive review of Afghan strategy. Think about that,” Jason Campbell, a former US Defense Department Country Director for Afghanistan, told The Media Line. Campbell worked out of the office of the defense secretary, serving as the point person on efforts to facilitate an Afghan peace process and engaging with NATO partners and allies contributing to the Resolute Support Mission.

A conflict that was under-resourced and neglected took a turn following the surge of troops in 2010, directed by then-US President Barack Obama. But, the 375,000-member Afghan National Security Forces built by the US-led coalition wasn’t sustainable, and by that point it was difficult to make changes and admit defeat or failure.

“Over time, the US footprint, along with NATO, began to dissipate. The concurrent effort to develop Afghan institutions, build a robust bureaucracy in a country with minimal experience in that, with a central government that never coalesced into something that represented democracy … it’s obvious for all to see now,” said Campbell.

 A  TALIBAN member stands guard as Afghan men take pictures of a vehicle from which rockets were fired, in Kabul, Afghanistan, August 30. (credit: STRINGER/ REUTERS) A TALIBAN member stands guard as Afghan men take pictures of a vehicle from which rockets were fired, in Kabul, Afghanistan, August 30. (credit: STRINGER/ REUTERS)

The review reportedly includes consideration of whether NATO should be willing to take on so-called “out of area missions.” The result of those discussions could have dramatic implications on how the US and its partners deal with China’s expansive ambitions.

“From the US perspective, one of the initial areas of focus is to mend some of the lack of engagement and trust that encapsulated the last few years of American involvement in Afghanistan. It was not as robust as it could have been,” Campbell said.

“When (then-US Secretary of Defense James) Mattis was in place, the US took a forward-leading approach with the alliance, that the US would remain committed, and America pressed for others to do the same. Most did remain and some upped their force levels through 2018,” said Campbell.

In December 2018, then-US President Donald Trump announced troop draw-downs in Syria and Afghanistan, counter to messages that had been communicated to allies. Mattis resigned shortly thereafter.

“Since then, the perception is that the US was engaging increasingly unilaterally in peace talks, led by (US envoy to the Taliban) Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, and that the US was making its own decisions – maybe informing the alliance, but not bringing them along for discussion and deliberation,” Campbell said.

The US is now trying to get out in front of NATO’s strategy toward a Taliban-led Afghanistan

“We are preparing for a next round of inter-agency US engagement with the Taliban. It’s just imperative that allies act and work together effectively when it comes to securing our interests in Afghanistan.  It’s also imperative that we work with the region – with Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran and the Central Asian states – on our common and abiding interest in a stable Afghanistan that does not represent a threat to its neighbors, is at peace with itself and respects human rights, women’s rights, the rights of minorities, and so forth,” West told reporters this week.

The most urgent step is to keep the current crisis from turning into a catastrophe, leading to potential mass migration into Europe, which is a troubling thought for many political leaders there. It is one area where the US has leverage and may be able to assist its European partners.

“The Taliban have voiced very clearly and openly their desire to normalize relations with the international community; to see a resumption in aid; to see a return of the international diplomatic community to Kabul; to see sanctions relief. And the United States can deliver none of these things on our own, and we have to work together with the international community in order to see those things come about. But that’s not an insignificant give and take and, again, we just want to first consult with our like-minded allies on exactly what the road map looks like,” West said.   

That road map would almost certainly involve an openness by the US to consider unique avenues for provision of humanitarian and other economic aid that, at least in theory, won’t reach the hands of the governing Taliban. West said that the US is considering proposals for the unfreezing of billions of dollars in reserves, along with international monetary agencies delivering regular salaries to Afghan citizens, but that consultations with allies and internally with the US Congress on such proposals are still underway.

The longer-term concerns, of course, revolve around the return of violent extremism exported from Afghanistan. The NATO withdrawal from the country and the United States’ stated plan to contact so-called “over-the-horizon” counter-terror operations leave many allies and experts worried.

“Over the horizon is a phrase that gets said a lot, but it doesn’t have a formal definition that means the same to everyone. In 2016, that could have meant reserves that could be pulled from Gulf states like Qatar or the United Arab Emirates, that could be pulled to respond to an attack. Now it means tracking the Taliban and carrying out strikes based on a concept that hasn’t fully been fleshed out. It’s at the point where no one can know to what degree it can be successful or mitigating,” said Campbell.

The most likely new US counter-terrorism presence in the region would be in Pakistan, which West is visiting this week. But Pakistan doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to national security issues, and Pakistani officials have publicly criticized the US in recent days for a lack of clarity about America’s plans for its follow-on mission in Afghanistan. 

“Pakistan has never been a trusted partner. They’ve been duplicitous for 20-plus years, and many in the national security world would have to come around to that reality and would need to be careful. Pakistan can be dealt with in transactional measures, but be mindful that they have a number of other geopolitical and internal concerns, including their relationships with the Taliban and China, other cross-border militant organizations, and in dealing with their own insurgents,” Campbell said, adding that the US and NATO are on the back foot in terms of alternatives in the region.

China and Russia have been assertive in engaging the senior levels of the Taliban to gauge the degree to which it can retain its stature in Afghanistan, to actually govern and be a more productive partner than the US- and NATO-backed government of the last 20 years. Both China and Russia also are seeking to prevent the impact of extremism and narcotics smuggling on their respective countries. China has mining interests in Afghanistan, and 15 years’ worth of investing has brought little to security and other issues. China is interested in securing a land route to Iran and points beyond in the event of a naval or other conflict that will limit waterways in the region. Qatar is also trying to retain influence and contest Pakistan in that realm, while the Saudis and the UAE are upset about the Taliban’s ties to Iran, leading to a host of geopolitical complications, in addition to the dire humanitarian crisis heading into the brutal Afghanistan winter.