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Five Myths About NATO and Afghanistan

Sara Bjerg Moller
Sunday, September 5, 2021, 10:01 AM

Commentators trying to pass blame for the handling of the Afghanistan withdrawal get the alliance's role in the conflict wrong.

Spanish and U.S. troops participating in the International Security Assistance Force board a CH-47 helicopter at Bala Murghab Forward Operating Base on Sept. 27, 2008. Photo credit: TSgt Laura Smith/ISAF Public Affairs via DVIDS

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Editor’s Note: “Who lost Afghanistan?” is a question with many answers. One being bruited about is that much of the fault lies with the NATO alliance, whose forces encountered many problems in Afghanistan. Sara Moller of Seton Hall University examines the charges against NATO and finds that many of them are overstated or flat-out wrong.

Daniel Byman


As governments and international organizations around the world come to grips with the reality of a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, many foreign policy commentators are raising questions about how, after nearly 20 years of intervention by the international community, this could have happened. Experts have proffered several explanations for the rapid collapse of the Afghan state and army, such as Afghan corruption (and the U.S. role in enabling it), Pakistan’s hedging, and the political machinations of Hamid Karzai. Yet amid the shock and surprise many observers are expressing at the developments of the past several weeks, a troubling revisionist narrative is taking shape among European officials, analysts, and media outlets regarding NATO’s role in Afghanistan.

Now that the United States’ two-decade military presence in Afghanistan has drawn to a close, it’s time to set the record straight, once and for all, about NATO’s role in Afghanistan. As part of a book I’m writing on wartime coalitions, I’ve interviewed more than four dozen former senior U.S. and NATO military and political officials, including SACEURs, undersecretaries of defense, deputy assistant secretaries, members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, CENTCOM, the NATO Military Committee and national chiefs of defense. Here’s what I’ve learned:

Myth 1: NATO was in Afghanistan because the alliance invoked its Article V collective defense (i.e., an “attack against one is an attack against all”) clause after 9/11.

It is true that NATO invoked Article V—which stipulates that an armed attack against one or more members “shall be considered an attack against them all” and entreats allies to take “such actions” as they deem necessary—in the aftermath of al-Qaeda’s attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. But neither of the two missions the transatlantic alliance undertook in Afghanistan—the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Resolute Support—were Article V missions. Those now claiming that, by leaving Afghanistan, the United States is not only abandoning Afghans but also jeopardizing European allies’ confidence in U.S. security guarantees are either unaware of—or worse, deliberately rewriting—history.

The suggestion that the security alliance invoke Article V for the first time in its history was broached by members of the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s governing political body, in Brussels on Sept. 12, 2001. However, some Bush administration officials, including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, were reluctant to involve NATO in the U.S. response to the attacks. As one former U.S. official told me, they worried that having NATO invoke the self-defense clause might restrict the U.S. government’s ability to “call the shots about what was going to happen.”

An additional concern arose over the precedent invoking Article V could set if U.S. authorities subsequently determined that the attack had originated from within the U.S. homeland and not from abroad. The Bush administration feared that the United States could then be asked to intervene against domestic terrorist attacks in NATO treaty states in the future. The Canadian chief of defense, who by happenstance found himself in the room when NATO ambassadors began debating whether or not to invoke Article V on Sept. 12, recalls the Americans “wanting to be absolutely sure that it was an attack from outside the U.S.[,]” and not a domestic terrorist act like the Oklahoma City bombing, before NATO authorized any follow-on action. After confirming that the attacks originated outside the United States, it then took “substantial work” on the part of U.S. Ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns to convince other Bush administration officials that having the NATO alliance formally invoke the mutual defense clause was important. Consequently, it was not until Oct. 4, 2001, that the North Atlantic Council formally invoked Article V, paving the way for NATO allies to send Airborne Early Warning and Control Force aircraft (AWACs) to patrol U.S. skies and offer other assistance, such as intelligence sharing, to Washington.

Although some NATO allies, including Canada, Britain and Germany, chose early on to contribute special operations forces (SOF) and, later, other military assets to the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan (Operation Enduring Freedom, which lasted from 2001 to 2014), they did so independent of NATO headquarters and command structures.

Nor did NATO play any part in the creation of the International Security Assistance Force, despite subsequently going on to lead it for more than a decade. When the security assistance force was announced at the Bonn Conference in December 2001, it was done so under the auspices of the U.N. Security Council, not the alliance. U.N. Security Council Resolution 1386 officially mandated ISAF to “assist the Afghan Interim Authority in the maintenance of security in Kabul and its surrounding areas.” Responsibility for overseeing the original 5,000-person multinational force for the first six months was assigned to the United Kingdom. Thereafter, ISAF’s command rotated to a new lead nation every six months, first to Turkey (July 2002-January 2003) and then Germany (January 2003-August 2003).

By fall 2002, however, it was becoming increasingly clear to nations contributing forces to ISAF that the security force would benefit from having NATO’s military headquarters in Mons, Belgium, assume responsibility for the force generation process needed to sustain the Kabul-based operation. The difficulties ISAF’s lead countries experienced sourcing personnel to sustain the Kabul force, coupled with the Pentagon’s waning attention toward Afghanistan as it prepared to invade Iraq in spring 2003, led Washington and its NATO allies to conclude that the time had come for the alliance to take charge of ISAF. Accordingly, on Aug. 11, 2003, NATO assumed command of ISAF, marking the alliance’s official entree into Afghanistan.

Yet while NATO would remain in charge of ISAF until the security force was eventually stood down at the end of 2014, ISAF remained a NATO-led (as opposed to a purely NATO) force, owing to the large number of non-NATO countries—including Australia, Georgia, Jordan and the Republic of Korea, each operating under its own rules of engagement—that contributed personnel to the mission. Following the conclusion of ISAF’s operations in Afghanistan in December 2014, NATO stood up a new mission, Resolute Support, focused on building Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) sustainability. But, like its predecessor, Resolute Support was a NATO-led mission, comprising both NATO allies as well as non-NATO countries, and not an Article V collective defense mission by the alliance.

Myth 2: NATO’s involvement in Afghanistan was a “nation-building” mission.

The suggestion that NATO, like the United States itself, was engaged in a multi-decade nation-building exercise in Afghanistan ignores the complicated reality of the international community’s 20-year involvement there. Since there is no internationally agreed upon legal definition of nation-building, evidence for what constitutes nation-building is often in the eye of the beholder.

Mission creep affected both the U.S. military intervention and NATO’s role in Afghanistan from at least 2003 onward. But while Operation Enduring Freedom was always the counterterrorism mission focused on hunting and capturing or killing terrorists and insurgents, ISAF was originally expected to provide security assistance to the newly formed Afghan government in the capital, Kabul.

The original U.N. mandate authorizing the creation of ISAF did so by invoking the powers and responsibilities contained in Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter. Unlike Chapter VI (“Pacific Settlement of Disputes”), which is typically associated with U.N. peace operations, Chapter VII is often known as the “peace enforcement” chapter. This distinction matters because, unlike the former, Chapter VII authorizes members to use force if needed. In contrast to Chapter VI, which relies on the “good offices” of the United Nations “to address conflicts in progress and usually involves diplomatic action to bring hostile parties to a negotiated agreement,” peace enforcement missions tend to be more coercive in practice.

Even so, many NATO allies continued to view ISAF as primarily a peacekeeping operation. During its tenure as lead nation in late 2002, the government of Turkey went so far as to explicitly refer to it as one. Other allies may have avoided the term but clearly saw it as more of a stabilization and reconstruction mission than a security assistance one. As a former Canadian commander of ISAF Regional Command South noted, “Canada was never going into Afghanistan to kill bad guys. Even when things heated up and the Americans were pushing us to chase Taliban all over the place, and capture and kill as many as possible, we never once saw our mission as that.” In Denmark, a political firestorm erupted after a Danish officer told his country’s media that his soldiers had killed between 60 and 70 Taliban fighters because Danish politicians erroneously believed the ISAF mandate covered only defensive operations and reconstruction activities. When ISAF’s mandate was expanded beyond Kabul in 2003 to eventually include all of Afghanistan, these differing allied interpretations of the two operations’ modus vivendi caused frequent headaches for U.S. and NATO military officers seeking to set up deconfliction zones between Operation Enduring Freedom and ISAF forces.

Still, ISAF did on occasion flirt with aspects of nation-building, such as when beginning in 2003 it became obsessed with establishing Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) to help stabilize conditions on the ground. These small teams of military and civilian personnel conducted a range of humanitarian activities and built roads, schools and other local infrastructure. Unfortunately, every country that contributed ISAF troops adopted its own approach to the management and operation of these reconstruction teams, with the predictable result that there was little to no coordination or follow-through when troop nations rotated in and out of provinces. When ISAF ended in 2014, most of the remaining national PRTs were rolled up to make way for Resolute Support—a train, advise and assist mission—thus bringing an end to NATO’s decade-long flirtation with nation-building “lite” in Afghanistan.

Myth 3: The United States blindsided its NATO allies with its “hasty” withdrawal.

Several commentators as well as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair have accused the U.S. government of leaving “European countries in the lurch” as it went about the late-summer withdrawal. Some European politicians have even gone so far as to claim that they were opposed all along to the U.S. withdrawal timetable and spoke out against it during meetings with U.S. government officials earlier this year. But neither claim passes muster.

For starters, there was nothing hasty or precipitous about the U.S. withdrawal timeline, which had been in the works since the February 2020 Doha agreement. Second, President Biden announced in early April 2021 his administration’s plans to complete America’s military exit from Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Third, NATO allies were briefed on the plans at a joint meeting of foreign and defense ministers on April 14 of this year by none other than Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin themselves. Here’s how NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg described the meeting at the time:

All Allies agreed. And all Allies agreed actually a statement, which we agreed at the ministerial meeting today, where we clearly state that we now have decided to start the withdrawal of all our NATO troops from Afghanistan, starting first of May. And the plan is to finalize that drawdown, or withdrawal, within a few months. So this is not something we just discussed. This is something actually we decided and adopted in a joint declaration where we state that clearly, and also explained why we made the decision. At the same time, I think, all Allies aware that this is not an easy decision. And this is a decision that entails risks.

At least one NATO ambassador so far has confirmed Stoltenberg’s accounting of events, telling the New York Times, “No country stood up and said no.”

To be sure, coordination among allies is like money in the bank: More is always better. But outside of NATO’s AWACs, the alliance doesn’t “own” any air assets, meaning in the final analysis that European allies as well as Canada were required to get their troops and personnel out the same way they got them in, via their own military and civilian aircraft.

And get them out they did. Most European allies had been quietly removing their forces from Afghanistan since April. Spain completed its troop withdrawal in May. Several other allies—including Germany, Italy, Norway and Romania—completed their retrogrades the following month, weeks before the U.S. military began accelerating its own troop pullout. As a direct consequence, fewer than half of the 7,000 non-American troops serving in Resolute Support at the start of the year were still in the country as of June 30.

In short, European politicians now feigning shock at the U.S. withdrawal timeline (or opposition to it) have about as much credibility as Captain Renault did upon discovering gambling in Rick’s Café Américain.

Myth 4: NATO allies could have stayed in Afghanistan after the United States left.

During a heated session of the U.K. Parliament in August, former Prime Minister Theresa May suggested that Boris Johnson together with other European NATO allies should have tried to stay in Afghanistan without the United States. In recent days, there have also been media reports that a handful of European NATO allies were interested in extending the NATO mission there and tried to establish some kind of mini “coalition of the willing” to replace the U.S. military presence.

Such pie-in-the-sky thinking is unlikely to have gotten very far—and certainly nowhere near the planning stage—in any European capital owing to the lack of European governments’ political will and their militaries’ lack of enablers (air power, intelligence, and other kinds of support) needed to sustain such a mission.

NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg captured the reality of the situation on Aug. 17 when asked about such efforts:

I have seen reports about attempts to try to establish a kind of coalition of the willing to replace NATO and the US presence in Afghanistan. I have read that in the newspapers, I’ve not been part of any consultations in NATO about that.

[T]here were [sic] no willingness from other European Allies, Canada or the partner nations, to replace or to fill in after the United States. So, so that is also reflected in the fact that after an extensive consultation, several ministerial meetings, many meetings at the Ambassador level in February, March and April, we decided, together, 30 Allies, that we would end the mission.

Moreover, the Taliban made it abundantly clear that they wanted all foreign forces out of Afghanistan by Aug. 31, suggesting they could attack any that still remained beyond that date. The group’s warnings apply to Turkey as well, which earlier this summer offered to guarantee the security of Kabul airport after the U.S. departure but has, thus far, been unable to secure cooperation from the Taliban.

For these reasons, it was neither politically nor militarily feasible for any NATO ally, either on its own or in combination with others, to maintain any kind of mission in Afghanistan after the U.S. departure.

Myth 5: NATO allies’ perception of U.S. credibility has been shaken.

By far the biggest myth surrounding NATO and Afghanistan that has emerged in recent weeks is the claim—usually attributed to unnamed “European officials,” former leaders or minor parliamentarians—that European leaders have lost confidence in U.S. security guarantees because of the Biden administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.

One of the oddest comments on this score came from George Robertson, who was NATO secretary general on 9/11, and who recently told the Financial Times that the Afghanistan drawdown served as a cautionary tale for NATO about the “time-limited” nature of U.S. security guarantees. “If this is a wake-up call to the Europeans—that in the future they’ll have to safeguard their own security much more than before,” he said. One would think that a former secretary general of the transatlantic alliance would know the difference between a collective defense guarantee enshrined in a 72-year-old treaty and an ad hoc and improvised commitment to a nontreaty ally.

If anything, America’s treaty allies should take comfort from the fact that Washington is finally shedding a costly military misadventure and choosing instead to focus on addressing contemporary challenges facing the alliance, like Russia and China.

Of course, it is important to distinguish among the decision to withdraw, the timetable for doing so and the chaos on display at Kabul airport. The scenes at the airport in particular have shaken the confidence of not just Europeans, but also many Americans, in the competence of U.S. institutions. But, as many others have already pointed out, ending a military misadventure was never going to be easy. And NATO allies, many of whom got their own forces out weeks before the United States, deserve their share of culpability for the horrific scenes that have unfolded in Kabul.

Sara Bjerg Moller is an assistant professor at Seton Hall University’s School of Diplomacy and International Relations and a former Eisenhower Defence Fellow at the NATO Defence College. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy of any current or past affiliation.

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