Why NATO Failed in Afghanistan

American Troops leaving Afghanistan. Image credit: CrusaderToonamiUK, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1949, The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was created by the United States, Canada, and several Western European states to provide collective security. NATO as a collective entity has participated in many military missions within European territory, and all of these missions were conventional wars if I explain it in terms of military. Afghanistan was the first overseas mission for NATO, and also it was not a conventional war but counterinsurgency warfare. Counterinsurgency is a more complex concept to be constrained in the concept of military discipline. My attempt in this article is to evaluate NATO’s counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan. By implying theoretical perspective, I explain why NATO as an international organization did not win its target in Afghanistan.

NATO as a Collective Entity or Arbitrary Individuals

Afghanistan war is the first land war for NATO; although NATO was created as a collective defense organization to deter, the alliance was instead entangled in a bloody counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan. After an easy military campaign in 2001 that drove the Taliban from power, ensuring stability and rebuilding Afghanistan’s political and economic foundation has proven challenging tasks for the transatlantic community

Despite having tens of thousands of soldiers from member countries of NATO in Afghanistan for two decades, the Taliban insurgency has grown rapidly.  The NATO-led International Security Force (ISAF) mission has brought tension to the relationships of the member states, exposed the alliance’s shortcoming in counterinsurgency warfare, and questioned NATO’s future willingness to launch any operation outside of Europe. The failures that NATO has faced in organizing, conducting, and resourcing the counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan are understandable in the light of the very different mission that NATO was established to accomplish.

After the attack of September 11, 2001, NATO’s European members invoked Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty for the first time in its history. Article 5 states, “The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.” But these members did not anticipate that involvement in Afghanistan will be a long and grinding war. The European members thought it would be a low-cost demonstration of solidarity and sympathy with American people rather than a protracted operational commitment.  According to one assessment: “European Politicians have declared that Afghanistan is vital to their own security, but in practice continue to treat as an American responsibility. In the context of a faltering campaign, the upshot is evaporating public support; mutual transatlantic disillusionment; and a European failure to act as the engaged and responsible partner that the U.S. has clearly needed for the last eight years.

The 20 years of NATO’s involvement in Afghanistan have shown that NATO was incapable of grasping and implementing the full spectrum of demands required of an effective COIN campaign in Afghanistan. The United States also has struggled to understand the requirements of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. But the U.S. forces, after several years of ineffective attempts to fight insurgency, began fully resourced comprehensive COIN operations in Afghanistan in 2009. After the fall of the Taliban, for several years, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States were mainly busy with counterterrorism, counternarcotic, and conventional kinetic operations. Germany and other European members of NATO were focused on reconstruction and stabilization work, including the training of Afghan National Police and providing basic security for the Afghan population while avoiding combat-related duties. France, another vital member of NATO, has mainly focused on training the Afghan Military and also, on a few occasions, took part in combat against the Taliban. The Dutch were basically under the command of the U.S.  in Afghanistan but withdrew from the conflict in 2010 due to the lack of support for the campaign from the Dutch public. Each of these engagements was not decided through a bureaucratic procedural of NATO; each state arbitrarily decided what mission and which province suits them most. 

NATO’s role and its mission had changed many times during its presence in Afghanistan. In the beginning, from December 2001 till August 2003, NATO was based in Kabul. From August 2003 until January 2007, a NATO peacekeeping force gradually expanded from Kabul to the north and finally to the west of the country. And from January 2007 till 2004, NATO maintained a nationwide military mission, including many combat operations. 

As the Taliban raised again in some parts of the country, the tension among NATO members regarding NATO’s mission in Afghanistan also increased. There was no consensus among NATO states on a common strategy in Afghanistan. NATO member states like Germany, Italy, and Spain were insisting that NATO’s primary mission in Afghanistan is peacekeeping and nation-building, not combat or fighting counterinsurgency war. But states such as Canada, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States were focused on operating counterinsurgency attacks on the Taliban in the southern and eastern provinces of Afghanistan. Even it was not properly resourced until 2009. This disunity was further complicated by the continuation of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), which the United States conducted outside of NATO’s command structure. 

Unity of purpose is more than simply a large force under one direction; it needs a focused effort to bring together all national and international power elements to achieve the coalition objectives. Achieving an “integrated” or “Comprehensive” COIN approach, NATO member states needed that all elements of diplomatic, economic, intelligence, and military power be combined to assist the host government, in the case of Taliban, the Afghan government.

NATO’s Challenges in Conducting Counterinsurgency

In the beginning, December 2001, the United States and the United Kingdom sent small military forces to Afghanistan for toppling the Taliban regime, which was providing a safe haven to Al-Qaida. After the Taliban was toppled, they regrouped and gained power in Pakistan. After the Taliban restructured its soldiers, they started an insurgent campaign in 2006 against the Afghan government and its international supporter, especially NATO troops. Evidence show NATO could not adapt to a modern variant of centuries-old guerrilla warfare. 

According to recorded history, insurgency is the oldest form of war. But contemporary scholars define it as “an organized movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through the use of subversion and armed conflict.” 

Some NATO members in Afghanistan have sought to have a comprehensive approach using all elements of diplomatic, economic, intelligence, and military power to help the Afghan government. And to provide vital services, reconstruct infrastructure, develop rural areas, and ensure the population’s security while defeating the Taliban. During NATO’s involvement in Afghanistan, it has been proven an arduous task to do so, especially by parallel chains of command among the U.S. military and civilian commands, the NATO, and the Afghan government. Unity of command is critical in having a “comprehensive approach.” Still, it isn’t easy to achieve this when so many different groups, including governments and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), are involved. 

The ability of NATO to successfully defeat the Taliban insurgents depends upon the ability of the member states to develop and follow a strategy that is not just comprehensive but also cohesive. As a collective entity, NATO had no prior experience of waging counterinsurgency warfare. Previous NATO experience in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo was conducted as conventional military operations. Many European countries as an individual had counterinsurgency experiences. For example, the British had many counterinsurgency warfare experiences against the nationalist uprising in its colonies. Or the French campaigns in Algeria and Indochina. But the main differences are that in these experiences, these European countries were involved as individuals, and in these cases, they also had the support and resources of the indigenous regimes, security forces, and bureaucratic institutions they had established in many years of interactions. And also, European powers possessed a high level of institutional knowledge and familiarity with the culture, economy, history, and language of their colonies. But Afghanistan was completely a different experience for European powers in the framework of NATO. NATO faced a sophisticated insurgency in a country that had not been governed for more than three decades. And the newly established government, Karzai’s government set up in 2002, was the first widely recognized government of Afghanistan since 1979. So the NATO faced shortages of intelligence, lack of indigenous support, insufficient troop levels, and various political and legal restraints

The fundamental structure of NATO was ill-suited for the mission. Any decision-making process required consensus building among all the twenty-eight member states. Each of these states had varying military strength, commitments elsewhere in the world, and unique domestic political circumstances that limit their foreign and defense policies. Within the broader context of the military, consensus-based decision-making cannot respond sophistically to battlefield events’ immediacy. The Taliban insurgents have also been known to organize attacks on national military contingents during times of internal political stress at their respective home countries, such as the Taliban increased violence against German troops in the run-up to the 2009 German parliamentary elections. Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan has followed the same tactic in targeting certain Western European countries in advance of their elections.

The deployment of troops in Afghanistan was accompanied by national caveats that limited their operation to certain types of missions. As a result, NATO troops in Afghanistan were divided along national lines, taking specific countries responsible for particular Afghan provinces. As Daniel Korski has noted “EU countries have treated the common effort in Afghanistan like potluck dinner where every guest is free to bring his own dish. In doing so, they are effectively ignoring the lessons learned- at a high cost the population and to themselves- in the Balkans.” 

As NATO expanded its area of mission in Afghanistan, the United States focused on Iraq War. Till late 2006, U.S. forces were operating in eastern and southern Afghanistan under OEF command. Evidence show that U.S. commanders in Afghanistan had a differing idea about the relative importance of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism missions. Some U.S. commanders were focused on counterterrorism and others on counterinsurgency. In counterterrorism, the main target was to capture or kill senior Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders, many of whom were fighting against international troops in Afghanistan from their headquarter across the border in Pakistan. Even after 2006, when the war escalated across Afghanistan, the U.S. forces did not reallocate their manpower and resources to conduct counterinsurgency combat. While the majority of U.S. military and resources were focused on Iraq War, the war in Afghanistan remained under-resourced for fighting a counterinsurgency war. And also, NATO struggled to support and resource its military presence for an insurgency war without the full attention and commitment of NATO’s key member, the United States.

NATO as an International Organization

NATO could not stabilize Afghanistan as it was supposed. NATO as an international organization was established for the security of Northern countries, but the ground evidence shows that they could not neutralize their first enemy in the 21st century, transnational terrorist groups. The latest intelligence reports of U.S. and European Union states demonstrate that there is still the possibility of terrorist attacks on Western countries from terrorist network groups which are active in Afghanistan and across the Durand Line. Here I am using theoretical perspective to study which criteria NATO lacked in the case of the Afghanistan war to act as an effective international organization. 

Steffen Bauer in a chapter of his book, “Bureaucratic authority and the implementation of international treaties: Evidence from two convention secretariats”, says that The notion of authority is of particular relevance to IO bureaucracies. Bureaucratic authority is the quality which transforms IOs into meaningful political actors.” Bauer further explains from where this bureaucratic authority comes “they possess various types of expert knowledge: technical and scientific knowledge of the policy problem at stake; administrative and procedural knowledge – which they often generate themselves; and normative and diplomatic knowledge – which is crucial for dealing with the complex system of relationships that is characteristic of international organization.” The data from the ground demonstrate that NATO as an international organization lacked any types of expert knowledge in Afghanistan warfare. Maybe this lack of expert knowledge comes from the lack of experience because It was for the first time that NATO as a collective entity was launching a campaign against insurgency. Whatever can be the reason for the lack of technical knowledge, but it showed that due to lack of expert knowledge, NATO could not fight effectively against the Taliban and did not act as an effective international organization.

Steffen Bauer further defines authority as “authority can be understood as a function that enables an actor to implement its will effectively without the use of sanctions because addressees will adhere to it voluntarily.” If we take this definition of authority in stake, so precisely anyone can based on ground reality, claim that NATO at all had no authority in the war against the Taliban, and each member of NATO was acting and deciding arbitrarily. States members of NATO were not deciding about their troop and policy with regard to NATO’s policy and plane. In September 2006, NATO military policy demanded that the alliance needed more troops to conduct an effective counterinsurgency in Afghanistan; NATO could only make a note of the request for 2,500 soldiers. This explains that NATO was lacking the required authority for performing effectively. As I have mentioned earlier that members of the NATO involved in Afghanistan, were taking their decision considering their domestic political situation. In 2010, the U.S., as vital player in this case, asked many times publicly from Dutch government to keep its troop in Uruzgan province but due to its domestic political situation Dutch government ordered withdrawing its troops from the country

Kenneth W. Abbott and Duncan Snidal in their article name “Why states Act through Formal International Organizations,” try to explain the efficiency of international organizations in the international realm and the willingness of states to act through international organizations. Doing so, they define two crucial functions of the international organization “Centralization and Independence.” They define centralization as “a concrete and stable organizational structure and an administrative apparatus managing collective activities.” Although NATO has a concrete and stable organizational structure and an administrative apparatus, my concern here is that NATO could not manage collective activities through these apparatuses. For instance, in 2009, President Obama’s administration decided to increase its troops in Afghanistan, but this decision was taken arbitrarily and was not passed through administrative procedure of NATO’s bureaucracy, and within this year, many European powers announced that they want to end their military engagement in Afghanistan regardless of the situation on the ground.

Although European members of NATO invoked article 5 and considered the September 11 attack as attack against all of them, due to lack of bureaucratic authority and technical knowledge, NATO as an international organization failed in its mission in Afghanistan. 

Lack of consensus is another reason for the failure of this mission. One significant task of the international organization is to unify the members on a single policy, but as the details showed that each member of NATO was following their own agenda, and these agenda were not set up with regard to NATO’s policy or Afghanistan’s situation but with regard to each country’s domestic situations. NATO lacked the significant criteria of an international organization, which encourage the states to act through international organizations, bureaucratic authority, independence, expert and technical knowledge, unity of policy, so on. 

Hamayon Yousfi is pursuing his Master’s Degree in International Relations at South Asian University, New Delhi, India. He studied Political Science at Gharjastin University, Kabul, Afghanistan. Hamayon Yousofi has been a content writer and frequent contributor to leading local newspapers on the socio-political affairs of Afghanistan. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.