Jittery NATO in Afghanistan: A Reluctant and Discordant Coalition Partner, Part 7

NATO troops returning to base in Afghanistan
Image credit: U.S. Department of Defense

In this last analysis among a seven-part study on Afghanistan, Adnan Qaiser, with a distinguished career in the armed forces and international diplomacy, examines the causes of NATO’s failure in Afghanistan. The author also investigates the internal dichotomies and divergences of the international forces that led to a “stalemated-war” with no clear winners or losers. [Read previous parts here]

French statesman Georges Clemenceau had wisely counselled, “War is too important to be left to the generals.” In its historic editorial at the eve of U.S.-Taliban peace-deal the New York Times confessed, “American soldiers deployed to [Afghanistan] as recently as last week had trouble articulating what their mission was.”

NATO’s Internal Differences and Discrepancies

Nationalism’s fundamental principle led the Taliban win this protracted war. The Taliban were fighting a war for national liberation from foreign occupiers, while the U.S.-led NATO and coalition forces were fighting an alien war destined for failure. As turned out later, neither the political leadership of many participating countries were “committed” in the conflict – thrust upon them by the vagaries of 9/11 – nor were their militaries prepared for a long-drawn counterinsurgency operation. Thus, while the Taliban fighters lived and died under the sentiments of Afghan patriotism, their adversaries remained preoccupied with saving their own skins. 

Since the start of the military campaign in Afghanistan, one has always questioned the capacity and strategy of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and NATO forces in Afghanistan. The Afghan war had been, in fact, NATO’s first “major combat” on ground after the Korean War which the alliance fought under the United Nations auspices.

Later, NATO largely remained engaged in a “peacekeeping role” such as: Bosnia no-fly zone (intermittently between 1992 and 2004); Kosovo and Serbia (1999), Maritime operations in the Mediterranean Sea (2001); Training of forces in Iraq (2004 to 2011); Supporting the African Union (since 2007); Europe’s air policing (since Russia’s intervention in Ukraine in 2014); and counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and Horn of Africa (2009). Thus, Afghanistan turned out to be the biggest test for the alliance that was created on 4 April 1949 to safeguard the security and strategic interests of (now) 30 member states in a Cold War setting in the climes of Europe.

For many a Western countries’ forces, Afghanistan had been a bolt-from-the-blue combat mission, for which they were totally unprepared. It can be safely assumed that none of the forces from NATO and other coalition partner countries had ever war-gamed a military conflict in Afghanistan prior to 9/11. It might be disrespectful to those soldiers who laid down their lives in the war in Afghanistan, but their losses can be attributed to the poor war strategy of their military commanders besides international power-politics and political compulsions of their political leaderships back home.

In its honest exercise of lessons learned from Afghanistan, the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute blamed the political leadership of different countries for their “self-imposed national caveats” (excuses and escape clauses from combat). The report documented: “Many other nations [than Canada] were restricted by caveats in different ways. German troops had to stay in Kunduz in the North. Dutch troops were restricted to Oruzgan Province, north of Kandahar, though without a formal caveat. Other contingents were forbidden to leave their bases at night.” Another research found between fifty and eighty restrictions on foreign forces, with several informal and unstated caveats imposed by their national governments. Such combat avoidance not only demonstrated it a disinclined war but also labeled those countries as “rations-consumers” for not contributing to the fight.

Thus, while heavy-weight NATO countries deployed their troops far away from the hotbed of conflict, those like Britain and Canada which were made to do the heavy lifting and dirty their boots in the combat locked themselves behind the “wire” – duly bribing the Taliban through private contractors for the safe passage of their supplies and sparing their bases from rocket attacks. This had been over and above the secret agreements allegedly made by a few allied countries like South Korea and Poland, pledging in return to end their missions at the earliest and not to send any reinforcement after the safe return of their hostages.

International polarization and NATO members conflicting goals and diverging worldview forced the alliance to seek New Strategic Concepts at NATO’s 60-year anniversary. The new strategic framework, which was aimed to meet present-day challenges facing the Western world underscored, “This is not the time to settle for modest adjustments. Fundamental change is in order.”

Saving Skin – NATO’s Jittery Operations

NATO forces’ jittery operations in the shape of carpet bombings of villages, wedding and funeral processions, friendly-fires, as well as nervous night-raids, desecrating the sanctity of Afghan household and causing unprecedented loss of civilian lives, demonstrated military commanders’ preoccupation with avoiding troop-losses at the cost of collateral damage. 

Performing a rotational six-to-nine-month of their tours of duty, the foreign forces remained alien to Afghan history, geography and its culture. Upon return from their tours of duty, while the Western military commanders boasted their achievements in the war during their talks – many of which I personally attended – they also hinted about paying much attention to the “safety of their troops.” Such jumpy and reckless way of fighting not only brought home an “occupation force perception” but also failed the troops from winning Afghan hearts and minds. A senior Canadian military officer, during one of his debriefings acknowledged: “We are still viewed as Soviets in Afghanistan.”

When commissioned and non-commissioned officers enlist in the armed forces, they are not only trained but also made aware of coming in harm’s way at some stage of their professional military careers. However, sacrificing life in the honour and safeguard of one’s nation and motherland remains a service-member’s biggest motivation. Thus, no army can win a war, no matter how righteous it may be or how well-armed a force is with sophisticated sinews of war, if its troops lack conviction and faith in the battle.

Victory at the Cost of ‘Collateral Damage’

The outrage caused by the rising civilian casualties during the international forces’ abusive and loathsome “night raids” compelled them to be stopped and handed over to the Afghan forces in April 2012. A visibly aggrieved former president Hamid Karzai publicly condemned the foreign forces’ “careless operations” a number of times, only to fall on deaf ears. 

NATO forces’ impunity from collateral damage even moved the Amnesty International to condemn the military leadership “of not knowing exactly what was happening on the ground and pursuing an incoherent process of dealing with civilian casualties.” In a damning indictment of international forces under its report titled Getting Away With Murder? The Impunity of International Forces in Afghanistan, Amnesty reproached NATO “to provide a clear and unified system.”

Later, the sharp rise in green on blue attacks‘ and the high attrition rate of Afghan security forces’ trained by the Western forces indicated a growing antagonism among native Afghans towards foreign troops’ heavy-handed operations and scorch-earth policy.

Having lost faith in NATO forces capability in defeat the Taliban, President Karzai during his 12-year presidency, kept pleading for a “smaller military footprint, less disruptive daily Afghan life and more efforts to protect civilians during stepped-up military operations.” Regrettably, Karzai’s successor, a technocrat Ghani didn’t lose sleep at NATO’s heavy-handed operations owing to his disconnect with the Afghan masses. In June 2016, The New Yorker described Ghani as “Afghanistan’s Jimmy Carter—a visionary technocrat who has alienated potential allies and has no feel for politics.”

However, General David Patraeus who took over NATO forces’ command after General Stanley McChrystral’s unceremonious sacking June 24, 2010, remained more than willing to risk collateral damage. Under his controversial Patraeus Doctrine, the general not only overruled his predecessor’s directive to employ “restrictive rules of engagement,” but also brought a counterproductive and extremely destructive “air war” into the battlefield.  

Scorched Earth Campaign

Similar to the Soviet-era’s scorched-earth warfare, NATO forces’ scorched earth military campaign and collective punishment strategy – obliterating entire villages, tree-lines and standing crops through carpet-bombings of daisy-cutters (15,000 lbs BLU-82/B bombs) – played a key role in brewing up extreme detestation among local Afghans for the occupying force. 

NATO demonstrated it was fighting an alien war in Afghanistan when after destroying the houses of hapless Afghans it contemptuously saw the people filing their property claims with the district governor as “in effect you’re connecting the government to the people.” While many residents dismissed the compensation as “just kicking dirt in our eyes,” such a disdain for the natives can only come from a force caught in a combat under duress. 

NATO’s Naivety – Ever-Changing Mission Orientation

Similar to the Western powers altering their strategic goals in Afghanistan – from eliminating al-Qaeda to defeating the Taliban; and from introducing a democratic culture to reconstruction and nation building – NATO forces also hopped between different tactical objectives, such as: “Three Ps” (peace, progress and prosperity); “CHB” (clear, hold and build); and “Three Ds” (disrupt, defeat and dismantle followed by deterrence, dialogue and development).

NATO forces belonging to Western countries further remained ignorant about the social, religious, and cultural norms, values and traditions of the Afghan people. The U.S. and NATO soldiers failed to obtain local population’s sympathy, which not only widened the gulf but also put troops’ security at risk. Sometimes soldiers were found sunbathing without clothes in open when small kids started throwing stones at them leading to ugly brawls and at times the troops just could not fathom the sanctity of women in an Afghan household.

Military commanders, most of whom had never seen a combat in their careers, since began articulating Afghanistan’s enigmas besides extolling the number of Taliban they had killed. Their knowledge of the region remained based on a few books, interpreters, commentators and fly-by-night journalists. One Canadian commander was heard by the author carrying along a PhD scholar as his staff to advise him on Afghanistan during his tour of duty. The military commanders and their troops never realized that a 5000-year old civilization and warring tribal culture is difficult to be understood during their six to nine month tour of duty. 

Thus, lacking a clear understanding of their enemy and the population they had been assigned to protect, the ambitious commanders lauded their short-termed tactical gains (killing of Taliban fighters in thousands, while many of them could be innocent civilians) and reconstruction efforts which ironically were reversed in no time. The world, meanwhile, watched in disbelief NATO forces’ major operations running into failure one after another, forcing the political leaderships to apologize and offer condolences at the loss of innocent civilian lives. While Foreign Policy termed one such disastrous operation named Operation Mushtaraq at Marjah a “fool’s mission;” Stars and Stripes noted, “Misunderstanding Afghan ideology [had been the] key to coalition’s failure to maintain control.”

One has personally listened to senior military commander expressing their total ignorance about the “parallel two-track reporting system” in Afghanistan. Underscoring gaps in their comprehension, the commanders remained baffled on the need of a district governor reporting to his provincial governor, while simultaneously passing on the information to the Arg (presidential palace in Kabul). 

In a rare display of valour and forthrightness former U.S. general Daniel Bolger admitted failure in his book ‘Why We Lost: A General’s Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars:’ [W]e did not heed Sun Tzu’s caution. We did not understand our enemies.

The ‘Short’ Arm of the Law – The International Criminal Court’s Notice

Although, very likely to be crucified at the altar of international power politics, the International Criminal Court’s decision of March 5, 2020 to investigate and hear cases related to the acts of torture and war crimes by the U.S. forces and the C.I.A. at Bagram Internment Center as well as at several “black sites” around eastern Europe is landmark and historic. Despite such sub-human practices stopped by President Obama in 2009, they do not exonerate the international forces from violating human rights and international law. Notwithstanding a few military courts martial, the senior officials having authorized such barbaric torture of non-combatant civilians – many of them later turned out to be innocent victims and released from Guantanamo Bay – remain unaccountable and scot free. 

The ICC’s dependence on powerful states for funding, assistance with investigations, arrest of suspects, and political support at the United Nations would forestall any meaningful investigation, or pursuance of war crimes cases to their logical end.

Despite its full military might, NATO’s failure in Afghanistan lied in its lack of professionalism, inconsistent policies, imperfect strategy, flawed tactics and divergent worldview of the coalition partners. Some of the reasons can be attributed to:

1) First, NATO’s frequent changing of mission orientation and its goals in Afghanistan underscored a trial and error approach.

2) Secondly, NATO’s lack of clarity and understanding of Afghan culture, especially the nationalistic spirit behind the Taliban insurgency made it become unpopular among the native Afghan population. Taliban’s survival, and success, is largely owed to the people’s sympathy in the rural areas.

3) Third, NATO forces were ill equipped for the Afghan terrain and the weather conditions. A force armed, trained, and equipped for the cool climes of Europe understandably could not withstand the hot temperatures and dusty environmental conditions of a largely barren and labyrinthine topography. Troops’ uniforms, armour and vehicles were not designed for the unforgiving and inhospitable battle environs of Afghanistan.

4) Fourth, NATO forces were trained to fight a conventional, or at least a tactical nuclear war. Except for the special-forces, the regular troops were largely ignorant about carrying out counterinsurgency operations (COIN) or guerilla warfare. Moreover, the Improvised/Vehicular Explosive Devises (IED/VED) caught the force totally unawares, and

5) Lastly, having lack of faith, or commitment to the war, NATO immediately began giving up districts after districts at the first sign of Taliban resistance and retreated to defend the urban centres only.

In his 2014’s book on Soviet invasion of Afghanistan titled What We Won: America’s Secret War in Afghanistan 1979-89, Bruce Riedel had noted: “Alliance management in warfare is always a challenging proposition. Countries have interests, not friends – especially when they do not have common values.”

Since wars cannot be won at tactical level if they are lost at strategic platforms, the international forces need to be prepared for any future combat around the world on following lines: 

1) Build intra-force harmony by effectively marrying-up their resources and coordinating operational doctrines.

2) Synchronize military objectives with the overall political goals and national aspirations. 

3) Develop a far better understanding of strategic, operational and tactical aspects of their coalition partners’ policy and practices.

4) Train and equip their forces for deployment and operations in varied types of topographical, climatic and environmental conditions.

5) Most importantly, analyze and educate their forces about various aspects of any future battleground, such as: (a) geo-strategic significance; (b) geopolitical ramifications; (c) economic fallout or blowback; (d) cultural and traditional ethos; (e) religious and societal mores; and (e) historical and civilizational underpinnings 

6) Finally, be mindful of overseas combat’s fundamental rule: For the native population, a foreign soldier wearing military fatigue and carrying an assault rifle remains an enemy; not a peacekeeper.

Other nations’ burden is always hard to carry and fighting someone else’s war – no matter how noble or righteous it may be, but devoid of national honour or self-interest – is always strenuous. As body-bags begin to arrive at home tarmacs, whatever little resolve or patience is left in participating nations fizzles out. Human and financial outlays lead to low approval ratings of political leaders and governments fall like house of cards. Such is the reality of modern-day warfare.

The war on terror has not made the world a safer place. The clash of civilizations has gone bitter and the threat of Islamic extremism grown. As I noted in my studies on radicalization and extremism in Islam, there is a strong perception that the more NATO forces and drone attacks kill innocent people, the more Afghan population and people in the Muslim world get radicalized and turn against what they call “Western imperialism” – or what Rudyard Kipling had hymned in 1899 as “The White Man’s Burden.”

As for the third time in last two centuries, foreign occupying forces have beaten a retreat from the “graveyard of empires,” it must have taught them a lesson: “Burning bridges is after all not a bad idea; it prevents you from returning to a place where you shouldn’t have been in the first place.”

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.