On NATO and Afghanistan — a hammer and a nail
Heiko Maas, German minister of foreign affairs, emphasised that the security situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating and that Germany will suspend deportations of refugees for the time being1. His realisation comes short after backing up Biden's decision to pull troops out of Afghanistan at this year's NATO summit2. NATO leaders largely backed president Biden's decision—nobody raised significant concerns. Maas later described that they reaffirmed the shared commitment to security and collective defence during the summit3. U.S. President Biden says he does not regret his decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, mentioning that the Afghan people "got to fight for themselves, fight for their nation"4. Biden, like Maas, has one thing in common: The illusion or lie that the NATO-led mission was a great success. The reality is that the mission tremendously failed and reflects certain Western countries' lack of spiritual vitality, resulting in a modern Vietnam war trauma.
From August 2003, NATO led the UN-mandated International Security Force (ISAF) mission, which aimed "to create the conditions whereby the Afghan government could exercise its authority throughout the country and build the capacity of the Afghan national security forces"5.
Currently, Germany sends Afghanistan 430 million EUR in aid a year, making it one of the biggest donors. The U.S spent over a trillion dollars over 20 years. The NATO trained and equipped with modern equipment over 300,000 Afghan forces. By pulling troops out, followed by the fast and frightening advance of the Taliban, it all went down the drain.
How did it happen, and how the Taliban gained ground so quickly? NATO is not a geopolitically wise organisation. It did a brilliant job in the Cold War, but in theory, NATO should have shut down after the "mission accomplished" 30 years ago with the end of the Cold War. Now, NATO is desperately looking for a new mission. For NATO, their behaviour reflects the adage: It is a hammer, and every problem looks like a nail to them.
During the 20-year mission, NATO and Western nations failed to understand the thousands of years of tribal and religious conflicts. They never understood that a foreign force would never resolve this conflict, side-tracked by political gains and driving arms industries. It is all tragic: Those that have lost their lives and those that will never have a chance at a fair one.
The biggest mistake was that after the attack of September 11, 2001, and the invoking of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, all members did not anticipate that the involvement in Afghanistan would be a long and grinding war. Especially the European NATO members had the naive thought that it would be a low-cost demonstration of solidarity and sympathy with the American people.
The 20 years of NATO's involvement in Afghanistan have shown that NATO could not implement the full spectrum of demands required for a long and prosperous peace. In addition, the U.S also have struggled to understand the requirements of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. Maybe they should have asked Russia?
NATO's role and mission had changed many times during its presence in Afghanistan. They started from Kabul, gradually working as a peacekeeping force to the north and the west of the country. In the end, they maintained a nationwide military mission which included many combat operations. The problem was that NATO could not adapt to a modern variant of centuries-old guerilla warfare. Insurgency is the oldest form of war, but NATO was not agile enough to understand this. In the Cold War, NATO did a brilliant job deterring Soviet expansion into Europe but did not understand that Afghanistan was different. If you are a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.
The Taliban now controls two-thirds of Afghanistan. NATO could not stabilise Afghanistan as it was supposed.
Kennan urged the United States to "create among the peoples of the world generally the impression of a country which knows what it wants, which is coping successfully with the problems of its internal life and with the responsibilities of a world power, and which has a spiritual vitality capable of holding its own among the major ideological currents of the time".
For me, now the critical question is how western nations can gain back their spiritual vitality and support the agency of Afghans in protracted displacement in the short term. What recommendations should be followed by the departments of foreign affairs and defence?
— Take the initiative for Afghanistan in the global compact for migration: The governments of western nations should advocate for a national labour migration strategy and policy to be taken into account. In addition, it should support a reduction in transfer fees for remittances sent by Afghan migrants.
— Enshrine the rights of displaced people and refugees: The government should ensure that displaced people and refugees receive the right to education, land and housing, medical care and adequate legal protection.
— No deportation or repatriation programmes from western nations: Administrative authorities in the German states should only carry our deportations of Afghans if they can guarantee safety, which is tragically not the case.
— Western nations need an immigration law that is also beneficial to the people from Afghanistan: An immigration law would regulate legal access to the German jobs and educational/training markets for qualified and skilled workers.
— Extend vocational training and employment schemes to areas that are not under complete control of the Taliban: Training and employment schemes should be implemented in the regions that are not under the control of the Taliban in collaboration with locally elected community development councils and professional associations.
— We need to establish an effective international organisation. It might be a theoretical perspective, but this also means we need to go back to multilateralism and away from nationalistic approaches, which requires diplomacy at the highest level. A significant task of politicians is to unify on a single policy, but as the details showed, each member of NATO followed their own agenda and failed. At least in Germany, I hope that Heiko Maas as minister of foreign affairs and Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer as minister of defence will not be in office after the upcoming election.
At the end of this post, a last piece of advice to non-NATO countries: If you are not a nail, be aware of the hammer.