Shortly after the Taliban took over Afghanistan last year, the longest war in US history almost immediately vanished from international public debate. For a few weeks, between late August and early September 2021, news and images of the Taliban’s control of Kabul made the headlines, sparking indignation across many Western countries. Nevertheless, by late September, both the long war and the situation on the ground started to attract less and less attention. Nowadays, the main view is that a worse crisis has absorbed NATO’s security concerns although by the time the war in Ukraine broke out, the 20-year Western intervention in Afghanistan had long been forgotten.
Besides the scarce attention paid to foreign affairs by Western public opinion (sometimes even by political elites), the general perception was that something had gone wrong in Afghanistan, something accidental and exceptional, yet without a critical impact on Euro-Atlantic security. First, despite the military debacle, the war on terror against al-Qa’ida and the Islamic State (IS) in the Middle East and the Khorasan Province seemed somewhat accomplished. The US-Taliban deal was a point in case when it envisioned the elimination of relations between the Taliban, al-Qa’ida, and the IS. Second, the military failure in Afghanistan did not appear to have critical nor immediate consequences for the NATO countries’ security. Despite official declarations in the summer of 2021 of concern over the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Afghanistan, every NATO country — alongside public opinion across the Atlantic — appeared rather willing to withdraw Western troops after a prolonged and costly engagement. Indeed, plans of departure had been circulating within NATO at least since the 2010 Lisbon Summit. More generally, Western countries agreed that the war against terrorist groups could continue but with more targeted military activities, steering clear of large-scale armed interventions.
Nevertheless, before leaving the lengthy intervention in Afghanistan for historians to examine or to international organizations still committed to avert a humanitarian crisis, it is worth considering the political implications of the international intervention. They are many, but two appear particularly crucial in light of current international dynamics.
First, the West’s misadventure in Afghanistan is not one of many. As if, the US "Enduring Freedom” Operation and NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) did ultimately fail; however, with a better strategic design and stronger political resolve they could have been successful. Instead, the withdrawal from Afghanistan marked the end of Western interventionism as we have known it since the end of the Cold War. Throughout the 1990s – especially with the 1991 war against Iraq and NATO’s interventions across the Balkans – the Euro-Atlantic community persuaded itself that crisis management through military intervention was a sort of silver bullet when handling international crises generated by failed states, civil wars, and aggressive non-state actors. The blueprint of NATO’s intervention in Bosnia and Herzegovina (1995) confirmed the effectiveness of such approach – i.e. a massive military (air) campaign followed by a large peacekeeping presence to assist state- and nation-building. In Kosovo (1999), Afghanistan (2001), Iraq (2003), and eventually Libya (2011), that blueprint has been slightly adjusted for each situation. Essentially, the overall framework based on a military campaign able to force a regime change in a target state — which entails an externally driven democratic transition — remained the backbone of the Western strategy. Yet, over the years, it increasingly faced many difficulties: first in Iraq, then in Libya, and eventually in Afghanistan. In this view, the mission in Afghanistan therefore became the last instance, and not merely an ill-fated campaign, of the post-Cold War model of Western interventionism. After Afghanistan, the Western international community no longer has the political will, military resources, or sufficient self-confidence in that blueprint of large-scale interventionism.
Second, the debacle in Afghanistan generated wrong views about NATO, particularly in Europe. During the final years of the intervention, the troubles the alliance met in Afghanistan heightened the perception of an inefficient, overstretched, and chaotic NATO devoid of strategic guidance. In 2018, President Donald Trump threatened to leave what he referred to as an ‘obsolete’ alliance; in 2019, President Emmanuel Macron defined it as “brain dead”; in September 2021, shortly after a hasty departure from Kabul, many Europeans called for a relaunch of EU integrated security, suggesting NATO might have grown less reliable. More recently, some even suggested that Russia’s boldness in invading Ukraine was also bolstered by the weaknesses displayed by NATO in Afghanistan.
However, blaming the Alliance for the failure in Afghanistan or presuming its obsolescence is wrong in many respects. Military experts maintain that, at the tactical and operational level, NATO troops in Afghanistan demonstrated resilience. Yet, at the strategic level, NATO was asked to pursue too many — and often contradictory — tasks, which represents the core of its problems. A key aspect that often goes overlooked is that NATO was not involved from the very beginning of the 2001 intervention, but rather began engaging in 2003 (when the US turned their attention towards Iraq): by then, the theatre of war was far from placated. In other words, NATO did not plan the intervention in Afghanistan. When it took command of ISAF, its mandate was peacekeeping in a war context where a war was going on. In addition, NATO had to expand ISAF all over the country, a task it was patently undersized for. As a result, NATO-ISAF had to bring peace in provinces where, until then, there had been neither peace nor international control. Eventually, when troops were faced by Taliban resistance, NATO-ISAF was forced to shift from peacekeeping to counterinsurgency – something it was not prepared, properly equipped, nor duly organized for.
Finally, NATO had to tackle all these difficulties while another large military operation was also operating on the ground, autonomously carried out by the US Enduring Freedom. Poor coordination, scarce intelligence sharing, conflicting goals, and sometimes even reciprocal distrust between ISAF and Enduring Freedom plagued NATO’s efforts in Afghanistan. Crucially, that was unique: no other Western peacekeeping mission has ever engaged in a fragile country where another Western country was also waging war. In conclusion, it would be wrong to point to the failures in Afghanistan as NATO’s failures. The alliance was — and still is — the most powerful multilateral security organization for Europe and the US. Though it has experienced misadventures and had its fair share of mistakes, it is far from obsolete, which is vital for the challenges it currently faces.