NATO in Afghanistan:  Perception and Reality

NATO Afghanistan

Anatol Lieven, the eminent journalist and now professor at the King’s College Department of War Studies, argues that the NATO effort in Afghanistan suffers from disparate and implausible motives and a profound lack of understanding of Afghanistan and the Taliban.

In a very long book review essay at Current Intelligence, Lieven offers this assessment of the Alliance:

European NATO governments have had to tell their populations that their troops are in Afghanistan because Afghanistan is a threat to them – something that Richard Barrett, former head of counter-terrorism at the Secret Intelligence Service, has now declared is “nonsense”. More candid British and European officials and generals have always admitted in private that the only really important reason is to help maintain the alliance with the US because Europeans are incapable of guaranteeing their own defence against a future resurgent Russia, or even the peace of the Balkans. This dependency-driven contribution is publicly called “saving NATO”, and in turn logically justifies Europeans doing the absolute minimum necessary in Afghanistan to keep the US committed to Europe.

The British military is also fighting for the sake of American patronage, to which it attaches an almost sacred importance (while complaining about its patrons all the time). In the British military’s case, however, there is another important motive with no necessary connection to Afghanistan: the maintenance of its own self-image as a fighting force, and the prestige of the military in British public life. This in turn feeds into a wider British obsession with great power status, derived above all from the enduring sense of loss of the empire.

Unlike the Georgian and Victorian builders of that empire, however, their descendants in the British elites have shown little desire to back up their desire for a great national role with personal commitment or sacrifice. This is not of course true of the British Army – but its gallant sacrifices have been made as part of what overall is a profoundly decadent national spectacle. It is not that the British military and their reputation for courage and endurance are unimportant; but if these assets are to be tailored to our real resources and collective national will, then they are assets that can only be used in Europe or in small scale expeditionary operations like Sierra Leone. As Afghanistan has demonstrated, any other large-scale operations demand a degree of commitment of which the British public today is not capable.

The Obama administration and US military for their part are fighting above all. as a senior officer told me, “not to win, but not to lose”. In other words, not for real victory, which neither they nor anyone else can define, but for anything that can be presented as victory, so as to avoid the humiliation of defeat, the consequent emboldening of all America’s enemies, and – not least – a potential Democratic loss in the next Presidential election.  And the US Republicans are doing just the same in reverse, seeking to turn Afghanistan into a US political battlefield on which the Democrats’ hopes of re-election can be crushed.

While there are huge kernels of truth in all that, it’s on the whole nonsense.

Do the soldiers and marines doing the fighting and dying there want their sacrifice to count for something?   And do their leaders wish to avoid the psychic costs of failure for reasons aside from Realist calculations of the national interest?   Are politicians cynically exploiting the debate for partisan advantage?  Of course.   But these aren’t the reasons we’re there but rather consequences of our presence.

The Brits are fighting in Afghanistan for the same reason we are:  it was the country from which the 9/11 attacks where supported and they assess the risks of allowing the Taliban back in power to be quite high.   Additionally, various actors within our societies — and those of the other Allies — have varying level of commitments to democratization, women’s rights, development, and other humanitarian agendas.

As regular readers are by now perhaps tired of hearing, I’ve become skeptical of our ability to achieve these aims.    Most signs point to the consensus moving in that direction in most NATO capitals.   But whatever one might think of the wisdom of the war effort and the strategy being employed to advance it, it’s simply not the case that there’s a dark, hidden agenda behind it.

This, however, rings mostly true:

If our allies in this war are so complicated and unreliable, what of the Taliban? What are the chances of the US being able to split them, and make peace with their “moderate” elements? Can there be a settlement with the movement as a whole, involving the exclusion of at least an open presence of Al Qaeda from areas controlled by the Taliban, and some kind of division of Afghanistan into spheres of influence? Failing that, when the US withdraws, will the Afghan National Army be able to beat them back from the main towns, as it did with Soviet backing in 1989-92? Or will the Taliban sweep to power in the Pashtun areas, or even the whole country?

These are the questions on which the whole future of Afghanistan, and perhaps the political future of the United States will hinge; yet our governments and militaries lack the knowledge of the Taliban that would be necessary to start formulating even tentative answers to them. Having roundly blamed the West for a lack of real interest in the subject, it is only fair to add that another reason for our lack of knowledge is that the Taliban are not at all easy to know. They do not exactly encourage research by journalists and scholars. Exceptionally dedicated journalists like David Loyn and Christian Parenti have managed to interview some of their commanders, and Graeme Smith of the Globe and Mail organised a very interesting opinion survey of several dozen ordinary fighters, but such efforts have been rare and partial. As for the Taliban’s own statements, both their style and content are rhetorical, hortatory and formulaic, making it extremely hard even for Afghans, let alone Westerners to detect whether they might all the same contain the possible seeds of compromise.

Now, as Christian Bleuer points to almost embarrassing detail, there has been a virtual cottage industry in producing high quality academic works on Afghanistan and the Taliban in the years following 9/11.  And, one would presume, some of them have actually been read.  But it remains true that, nearly a decade in, our high level decision-makers (by which I mean field grade and flag officers and their equivalent in the diplomatic and intelligence communities, not politicians and political appointees) still have very little in the way of cultural and regional expertise.    Nor have we corrected our woeful lack of investment in language proficiency. 

Beyond that, we almost certainly don’t have the foggiest clue what the ramifications of decisions we have taken or might take will have on the Taliban.   Indeed, we’re only finally figuring out that there are multiple Talibans, which have very different agendas and relationships with regional governments and sub-governments.  Are they mostly, as David Kilkullen argues, "accidental guerrillas" who have banded together in response to foreign invaders, motivated by a combination of tribal pride, a sense of adventure, and monetary reward?   Or would they soon be back in charge in Kabul if we weren’t there to keep them in check?    And what about al Qaeda?  Would they come back to the other side of the border and resume their old safe haven, growing back to something like their former self?   Or is that version of the group gone forever, replaced by fractured cells that can operate anywhere but incapable of planning 9/11-scale operations?

There are a lot of guesses on those front, some more educated than others.   But we really don’t know.  And that’s a very scary position from which to make strategic decisions.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. 

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