NATO Is a Following with Dues-Paying Members; It Must Become a Partnership

Although recent events in Afghanistan raise unavoidable questions about the future and purpose of the Alliance, the Czech president speaks only for himself and his friends in Moscow when he calls into question NATO’s legitimacy and existence.

When the Tokyo Olympics recently ended, our global appetite for sport required something new. We didn’t have to wait long. Politicians seeking to distance themselves from the recent collapse of the Western-allied Afghan government, the poorly-planned US military withdrawal that precipitated it, and the shocking return of the Taliban to Kabul have all become world-class flamethrowers.

Not content to think of how we could have averted the current crisis and what to do next, former British prime minister Tony Blair called the rapid force departure “tragic, dangerous, unnecessary”, and claimed the decision to leave Afghanistan was an act of “obedience to an imbecilic political slogan about ending ‘the forever wars’.”

UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace admitted to being “pretty blunt about [the troop withdrawal] publicly… a rare thing when it comes to United States decisions.” True to his confession of a lack of diplomacy, he added: “I think the [peace] deal that was done in Doha was a rotten deal. It effectively told a Taliban that wasn’t winning that they were winning.”

The head of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party, Armin Laschet, called the withdrawal, “[T]he biggest debacle that NATO has suffered since its founding… we’re standing before an epochal change.”

Worse, from the point of view of preserving the integrity of the transatlantic alliance, in a recent interview Czech President Milos Zeman described the withdrawal from Afghanistan as an act of “cowardice” that “calls into question doubts about [NATO’s] existence.”

Zeman, a provocative populist known for aligning himself with Moscow and Beijing more than Washington and Brussels, who has publicly supported the right of Czechs to hold a referendum on both NATO and EU membership, declared that NATO “barking at Russia and China” doesn’t impress him. He insisted, instead, “the main goal of NATO is to fight against terrorism, Islamic terrorism, if you will.”

The Czech president’s contempt for the Alliance then boiled over: “[Afghanistan] was the only occasion NATO has had to fight… [but] it failed dramatically.” His final thrust resembled an attempted coup de grâce: “Mistrust will increase among a number of member states, since they will say to themselves: ‘if you failed in Afghanistan, where’s the guarantee you won’t fail in other critical situations as well?’”

A “natural consequence of NATO’s failure in Afghanistan,” Zeman added, “should lead to a reassessment of defence spending and increased emphasis on national defence,” as well as switching from NATO-mandated foreign manufacturers of military equipment to domestic ones, which he claims would better serve the interests of the Czech state.

Selective memory and the ‘failure’ of NATO

Although recent events in Afghanistan raise unavoidable questions about the future and purpose of the Alliance, the Czech president speaks only for himself and his friends in Moscow when he calls into question NATO’s legitimacy and existence.

NATO remains as relevant than ever. What has changed are the nature of the challenges and the fields of potential conflict. One need not look beyond Russia’s annexation of Crimea, its ongoing aggression in Eastern Ukraine, and Vladimir Putin’s attempt to re-establish the old Soviet sphere of influence in the Middle East and South Central Asia to understand this. Then there’s the surging spillover of potentially destructive international conflicts into cyberspace, where NATO is well-positioned to formulate an effective doctrine of cyber deterrence, which could have a stabilising effect on a phenomenon where malign state and non-state actors currently attack with impunity – the latter often with the protection of state sponsors who benefit from the chaos they cause.

How easy it is to forget the achievements of the initial phases of the intervention in Afghanistan after seeing images of desperate people clinging to a taxiing military airplane.

Critics who harshly judge NATO’s intervention in Afghanistan as a “debacle” and “dramatic failure” fall into the well-known cognitive traps of refusing to recognise complexity, confusing memory and prior experience, and letting the ending (or, in this case, the premature perception of one) dominate the entire story. How easy it is to forget the achievements of the initial phases of the intervention in Afghanistan after seeing images of desperate people clinging to a taxiing military airplane.

A close examination of the first phase of the conflict in Afghanistan, however, shows that coordinated NATO action did exactly what it was supposed to do. The Taliban-led Emirate that harboured al-Qaida quickly collapsed after US and Northern Alliance forces routed them, in an apparently-forgotten reverse image of the Taliban’s recent re-conquest of Afghanistan. Al-Qaida was severely degraded. Its operational capabilities were neutered, its territorial base was gone, and its leaders were either dead or in hiding. A transitional Afghan leadership quickly emerged and took power. Osama bin Laden was eventually captured and killed. The attacks of September 11, 2001 were also the last al-Qaida-led attacks on US soil (an achievement which admittedly offers little solace to the victims of subsequent attacks elsewhere in the world).

Is this a fair definition of “failure”? Not from the perspective of the NATO/ISAF mission’s initial goals – at least until President George W. Bush fundamentally redefined and expanded those goals in a speech in April 2002 that recalled the grandiose ambitions of the Marshall Plan in Europe after World War II, before suddenly shifting his attention away from Afghanistan so he could invade Iraq in March 2003. Without consultation, the US dragged its NATO partners into a liberal “nation-building” project for which there was no successful precedent, no explicit consensus among NATO member states and no operational template.

What took place in Afghanistan in 2002 and the years that immediately followed, however, is difficult to remember with clarity in 2021.

Don’t blame me…

I spent nearly a year and a half during 2011-12 working for the US State Department on various “development and assistance” projects in Afghanistan, during which I witnessed first-hand the US “leading” and NATO “following”. Over-ambition and imputing the needs of others through the prism of one’s own preferences and values – specifically those of the US, not its “coalition allies” – had consequences.

As author Shadi Hamid correctly argued, “American planners thought they knew what the country needed, which was not quite the same as what its people wanted.” This included centralised authority where de-centralised authority was the traditional norm; liberal institutions, notably a modern justice system, requiring competent leadership and low levels of corruption where neither condition held; easily corruptible national elections by secret ballot with low turnout, where traditional forms of leadership selection were community-based, open and de-centralised; and support for gender equality in a society that overwhelmingly rejects it.

Meanwhile, the Taliban were crossing the border from Pakistan and re-establishing themselves in rural communities which craved only two things – security and justice – which they were better at providing as “outputs” than an American-sponsored government more concerned with “inputs” (i.e., side-payments and bribes for public services).

As some have pointed out, Afghanistan has changed in ways which may limit the Taliban’s opportunities to reimpose the absolutist tyranny that Afghans experienced from 1996 to 2001. According to Roya Rahmani, the former Afghan ambassador to the UK, policies which promoted the rights of women and girls “turned out to be the achievement” of the past 20 years. Female literacy is roughly 30% in a country where girls were once banned from school.

The Emirate 2.0 will also need women in the health and education sectors, for example, as well as experienced bureaucrats, in order to govern. More moderate Islamists are likely to end up sharing power with them, including former president Hamid Karzai, former foreign minister Salahuddin Rabbani and former deputy president Karim Khalili. Although the imposition of a strict version of Sharia will almost certainly limit the role women play in society, we don’t yet know how the story ends.

A partnership, not a following

Despite the ignominious military and diplomatic retreat of the most powerful member of NATO from the centre of its biggest mission ever, the Alliance will continue to play an important role on the global stage in the future. But it needs to become a partnership, not a US following with dues-paying members.

Poorly conceived, top-down American political decisions that caused the NATO mission in Afghanistan to veer disastrously off course – which led to the current crisis on the ground in Kabul and elsewhere, and which have left the entire Alliance vulnerable to doubts about its purpose and future existence – must give way to more input from allies which strengthens its legitimacy and renew its relevance.

A disturbingly similar dynamic has developed between the US and the rest of NATO that also developed between the US and the recently deposed Afghan government. Reliance on the US as leader, hand-holder and decision-maker has stunted the development of self-reliance, self-confidence, independent decision-making and effective influence over broader Alliance policy among other member states.

As the US becomes increasingly preoccupied by strategic concerns vis-à-vis China (a relationship where NATO is less likely to be influential) and less likely to act as the world’s policeman during a major security crisis, other member states face the choice of either acting more assertively in the name of injecting the Alliance with purpose, or NATO dying the slow death that some critics like the Czech president would like to see.

Check Also

Imperialist alliance fuels arms race in Indo-Pacific

At the G7 Summit last June, Joe Biden, Boris Johnson and Scott Morrison, representing the …