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Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Future of NATO

Three questions to Dr. Jamie Shea

Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Future of NATO
 Jamie Shea
Member of the Group of Strategic Advisors of the NATO

Afghanistan wasn’t just America’s 20-year war. The international alliance as a whole shares part of the blame for its failure. The Afghan catastrophe will prove crucial for the future of NATO’s missions, including Iraq. What went wrong in Afghanistan? What factors explain NATO’s lack of foresight? To shape its future role in international relations, NATO will need to address challenges of coherence, logistics, and capacity. Jamie Shea, former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at NATO, answers our questions and shares his analysis on the importance of Afghanistan for the future of NATO's very role.

Looking at the situation in Afghanistan, is there anything the international alliance, and in particular the US, could have done differently?

It is always tricky to discuss revisionism. The further back you go, the more smart options you have. Conversely, the closer you get to the present time, the fewer viable options remain. Nonetheless, there are 3 mistakes that can be clearly identified. 

The first was undoubtedly the US decision to invade Iraq in 2003 and, by doing so, taking the eye off Afghanistan. This mistake was even costlier if we consider regional dynamics at the time: Iran, Pakistan, China, and Russia, overwhelmed by the display of American military power in invading Afghanistan and removing the Taliban regime, were willing to cooperate. The second mistake concerns Afghan presidential elections. The US should have focused on ensuring that these elections were legitimate for the Afghan people, avoiding US Secretary of State John Kerry’s multiple interventions when they were deemed too fraudulent.

Finally, the Obama administration in 2008 committed a historic mistake. At the time, the US ramped up its forces: the Taliban were under considerable pressure given the presence of 150,000 NATO soldiers. The plan was to overwhelm the Taliban strongholds with coalition forces and bring Pakistan, Russia, China and Iran into a regional dialogue on stabilizing Afghanistan. Unfortunately, Obama undermined his own decision by announcing an end date of the surge only 6 months later, which offered the Taliban an escape from forced negotiations and the need to compromise on power sharing. In terms of operational capabilities, the US was late in training and equipping the Afghan army. It also badly assessed the fighting power of the Afghan forces. Worse even, the military effort was always disproportionate to the civilian one. Afghanistan had too few diplomats, home affairs advisors, justice and aid advisors compared to the preponderance of military forces. This comprehensive, multi-institutional approach made NATO comparatively more successful in other missions i.e. Kosovo, Bosnia, and Macedonia, where civilian and military assets were more equitably engaged on the ground. In Afghanistan, the EU engagement was too poor, and never a security and foreign policy priority for the EU compared to what the same European countries were contributing militarily through NATO.

In Afghanistan, the EU engagement was too poor, and never a security and foreign policy priority for the EU compared to what the same European countries were contributing militarily through NATO.

When you get to the present day, the remaining options were all unattractive. The Biden administration, realistically, was faced with three scenarios. The first was to tear up Trump’s peace deal and renegotiate with the Taliban under more stringent conditions. The second was to carry on with the status quo given that alternatives to withdrawal would worsen the situation. This would require new strategies, fighting techniques and much better governance, an obvious challenge, but with strategic forbearance perhaps the future would offer better conditions. The final one (chosen) was to withdraw troops knowing the Taliban would return to power sooner rather than later.

This enabled the US to cut its military and financial costs while arguing that it could still deal with the major potential threat from Afghanistan - jihadist terrorism - with an over the horizon strategy and various forms of sanctions and diplomatic pressure.

Looking at all these strategic errors, perhaps the underlying misjudgement that led to the present-day fiasco was the lack of a clear long term commitment that would have changed the calculus of the Taliban, the regional powers and the Afghan people. The US and the allies were always talking about end dates and exit strategies, even before the advent of Trump and Biden. The Taliban latched on to this with their slogan: "you have the watches but we have the time". The US and NATO also became enmeshed in the well known paradox that the more security they provided to the Afghan government and elites, the less the latter felt under any serious pressure to reform, improve governance and fight corruption - when the opposite was what Western strategy intended. Obama admitted this blindspot in his administration once he left office. He also acknowledges that, in retrospect, officials should have collaborated more closely with China, Russia, and Iran, and found a better way to constrain Pakistan to stop its destabilizing behind the scenes activities. The US fixated on the withdrawal but failed to come up with a handover strategy, particularly one that would have sustained the Afghan army in the field with logistics and air support, and that would have avoided the building to collapse.

NATO’s involvement in Afghanistan is very different to what it is doing in Iraq. But are there any lessons NATO can draw from Afghanistan for its Iraq mission?

There are similarities and differences. In terms of differences, Iraq should be more sustainable for the US because the Americans are now reducing their presence at the request of the Iraqi parliament. Maintaining a low profile is wise. This, coupled with last year’s decision by the US to put a new structure in place, underlines the importance of a handover strategy as was previously mentioned. The Americans asked NATO to supply trainers to replace the reduced US presence and NATO is now opening training centers outside of Baghdad (Italy is now commanding this mission). This points to a gradual transition, more of a European role through NATO. 

There is a basis of legitimacy there. The Americans already have their containment strategy in place in Iraq, sending F15s to bomb the Iranian sponsored militia forces (apparently threatening the US) on the border between Iraq and Syria. The US, because of its involvement in Syria and the legacy of Iraq, the support for the Kurds, and the fight against the ISIS caliphate, already has considerable intelligence to deal with both the Iraninan sponsored militias and the residual ISIS cells. The US is in a better position in that sense: they did not have that in Afghanistan. Furthermore, in Iraq there is no immediate challenger to the Iraqi armed forces in the way that the Taliban (supplied by Pakistan) were a massive military one for the Afghan forces. 

There are 3 elements in Iraq that challenge national Iraqi forces: the Kurds (Peshmerga groups in the North, allies of US); the popular mobilization forces supplied by Iran who have played a key role alongside the US in the anti-ISIS coalition; and ISIS, the real enemy, but weakest force. The good news is that of the 3 opponent forces, one is potentially friendly, the second are allied with the government in Baghdad, and the third is comparatively weak provided we don’t allow it to revive. A strategy in Iraq - which was not possible with the Taliban in Afghanistan - is to co-opt 2 out of 3, that is, to find ways to get the Kurds and Iraqi forces to work more closely together.

A strategy in Iraq - which was not possible with the Taliban in Afghanistan - is to co-opt 2 out of 3, that is, to find ways to get the Kurds and Iraqi forces to work more closely together.

Secondly, to demobilize these Iranian supported forces and to insert them into the Iraqi army without them taking over. The bottom line here is to get the politics right, broaden the basis of support for the Iraqi government within the country, and the rest will follow. 

On the military side, the Afghan army essentially failed for two reasons. The US created it to be a force which would work alongside international support. It was too dependent on US logistics, intelligence, air support, contractors and medical evacuation. In Iraq we are doing the same thing, we are creating an army which is designed to fight in partnership with the internationals. It now has better leadership and has the confidence to fight but we have to accept the fact that it requires a residual international presence. 

The second issue with the Afghan army concerns logistics. There is no doubt about their commitment. They were brave and suffered tremendous losses (70,000 deaths in the last 3 years). Yet once the Taliban organized their advance, they had no logistics. Stories of Afghan officials selling ammunition to their own troops were reported, which does not play well for corruption headlines. There was a lack of focus on organizing a leadership command structure back in Kabul and a robust logistics and supply chain. 

Finally, contractors should have been left behind. Most military equipment needs a great amount of maintenance, and that requires contractors. If you don’t want your own forces to stay, make sure you pay all of the private sector contractors to ensure aircraft will be able to fly. 

What does all of this say about the very role and position of NATO?

There are both short term and long term priorities. The first is recognizing the wide intelligence failure. Every National Security strategy begins with strategic anticipation. As Napoléon would say "getting beaten is excusable, getting caught by surprise is unforgivable". Biden and NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg all voiced their surprise at how the situation in Afghanistan unfolded following the withdrawal, and that is concerning given that NATO was in Afghanistan for 20 years. We cannot allow ourselves to be in this situation where we are on the backfoot. Anticipation is key especially for a defense organization. 

A second priority concerns strategic questions. Macron’s infamous "brain dead" comment touched a nerve because he had a point, and Afghanistan proved it. On important strategic fronts, NATO cannot go sleepwalking into crises. NATO performs well as a military organization but in terms of political consultation it is still trying to figure out consequences of actions and decisions it is taking. With 30 member countries, there needs to be a strategic discussion around the table. Nations must use NATO politically to plan ahead, not just react once a crisis erupts. Here, a transatlantic discussion with European input on US thinking is of utmost importance. 

Nations must use NATO politically to plan ahead, not just react once a crisis erupts. 

A third priority and point of future improvement concerns training. As part of Stoltenberg’s NATO 2030 program and his idea for a new alliance strategic concept, there is emphasis on NATO being a super trainer for local forces (Ukraine, Georgia, Jordan, Iraq and maybe Sahel in the future). This is all commendable, but after Afghanistan, the degree of credibility is weakened.

Hence, NATO needs to focus on the training aspect to avoid the collapse of local armies. The culture of optimism sometimes present needs to be replaced by a realistic assessment of internal deficiencies. 

A final point concerns European capabilities. The idea of strategic autonomy (as stressed by Josep Borell in his New York Times piece) has been at the forefront of priorities. Europe must be able to act alone, where necessary and where it has its own interests to defend. It needs to be able to do so rapidly and with its own command structure and its own forces. Despite the US leaving Afghanistan, it is in European interests to keep the Kabul airport open, with a EU diplomatic presence. This is not in defiance of the US, or NATO for that matter, but more in line with Europe’s own strategic priorities and interests. The US does not face the risk of mass migration from Afghanistan in the way that the EU does.

Looking at Mali, Sahel, Afghanistan, there are parts of the world where Europe sees interests and needs where the US is either disengaging or is unwilling to commit resources or strategic and diplomatic attention. There has to be an EU ability to implement capabilities to protect European strategic interests. And the EU won’t get there if we need unanimity of the 27 members. There needs to be a majority voting for common foreign and security positions.

A final paradox concerns diverging interests between Europe and the US. Biden described the Afghanistan withdrawal as necessary for the US to focus more intensively on China. Among many European allies, it is going to be the opposite. Europe will be less interested in big new deployments in the Indo Pacific if it is essentially there to support US defence and deterrence missions with no full participation in US strategy. There are significant security challenges in the European region, so the focus is more likely to be at home. At least in Europe, the US is fully engaged too through NATO, and as Biden recently confirmed at the June NATO summit. So Europeans feel that they’re on a more secure footing when it comes to collective defense on their own continent. Where the US is going East, NATO will interpret the Afghan endgame as the opportunity to go back West, and to their immediate neighborhood.




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