The dilemma of whether or not to withdraw NATO and US missions in Afghanistan has finally been solved: America's longest war will end in September.
In Afghanistan, however, the scenario in years to come is not optimistic. The level of violence is still high, and the impact of the pandemic has accentuated the structural problems of the still-fragile state, including economic crisis, unemployment, and corruption. The victories obtained in the continuous struggle to strengthen state institutions, support for women's rights, and humanitarian aid may disappear in a moment.
The presence of ISIS in the region poses a solid threat to international security, especially since in the case of Iraq, following the withdrawal of troops, terrorist cells developed at a rapid pace, and a new intervention was needed.
This withdrawal could lead to the loss of what has been difficult to achieve so far. It also increases the risk of a civil war and the opening of a new space for maneuver for ISIS. In order to maintain stability in Afghanistan and in the region, as well as to fight the terrorist threat or, at least, to keep it under control, Afghanistan cannot be left alone.
The US and NATO are faced with a new situation, and the correct model to pursue will take shape according to the evolution of the situation on the ground. Certainly, this historic withdrawal changes both the concept of the fight against terrorism and the concept of projecting stability as promoted by NATO.
By Liliana Filip
An unstable Afghanistan and the withdrawal
American efforts to install a democratic system in Afghanistan, as well as to improve opportunities for women and minorities, are at risk if the Taliban, which banned girls from schools and women from public life, become dominant again. The negative effects caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have overlapped and aggravated the internal situation in Afghanistan, which is already characterized by rampant corruption, feeble state institutions, and an economy that is heavily dependent on American and other international aid.
The US-Taliban agreement signed in Doha, Qatar, in February 2020, which followed after more than a year of stop-and-start negotiations, was seen as a step toward negotiating a more sweeping agreement that some hoped could eventually end the insurgency of the Taliban, the militant movement that once ruled Afghanistan under a severe Islamic code.
More than a year later, on 14 April 2021, President Biden announced the withdrawal of NATO and US troops. This announcement extended former US President Donald Trump’s 1 May deadline to 11 September, with troops beginning to leave Afghanistan on 1 May. According to Obaid Ali, a researcher at the Afghan Analysts Network, “Joe Biden has found a way to include this May 1 date to calm the Taliban, while imposing his own timetable.” [i]
Before the decision was made, US officials and the international community had made efforts to identify a way to secure the region before withdrawal. Moreover, they tried to mediate the relationship between the Taliban and Afghan authorities in order to diminish the likelihood of a civil war. In this regard, on 7 March, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken sent a letter to President Ashraf Ghani emphasizing the urgent need to achieve peace in Afghanistan. He clarified that while the policy of the Biden administration was then still under review, the peaceful settlement of the conflict remains a priority. The letter informed President Ghani of the plan to hold a UN-facilitated conference in Turkey, in which international and regional stakeholders would try to reach a negotiated settlement and an agreement on an immediate ceasefire. Attached to the letter was a roadmap for power-sharing and, notably, for a “peace government.”[ii]
The Turkish government subsequently announced that a conference would be convened in April. On March 18, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appointed the veteran French diplomat Jean Arnault as his personal envoy on Afghanistan and regional issues. On the same day, an Afghanistan peace conference was held in Moscow, hosted by Russia, the United States, China, and Pakistan, in the presence of the representatives of the two conflicting sides as well as Turkey and Qatar as observer countries. [iii]
The conference in Turkey was established as a platform from which to iron out a power-sharing arrangement. Given its deep historical bonds with Afghanistan and regional outreach, as well as its membership in NATO and partnership with the EU, Turkey was considered as a suitable candidate to facilitate a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan. However, this initiative has so far been unsuccessful because of the lack of interest from the Taliban, which claimed that they could not attend such a conference in April.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has emphasized that a responsible end of the war is needed: “What we want to see is a responsible end to this conflict. There’s a lot of energy focused on doing what’s necessary to bring a responsible end to this conflict.”[iv]
Given the announcement of the withdrawal and the postponement of the deadline until September, we can consider that the responsible end of war may mean that during this period damage control measures will be taken as well as that the US will remain alert on the situation in Afghanistan.
NATO Allies, as previously announced, have waited for the American signal to respond in tandem as troops began to withdraw.
In a joint press conference with the US Secretaries of State and Defense, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said “our drawdown will be orderly, coordinated, and deliberate.” He added: “we went into Afghanistan together, we have adjusted our posture together, and we are united in leaving together.”[v]
Mr. Stoltenberg called the move “the start of a new chapter” in NATO’s relationship with Afghanistan, saying “Allies and partners will continue to stand with the Afghan people, but it is now for the Afghan people to build a sustainable peace.”[vi]
Proponents for withdrawal argue that the United States has done all it can militarily in the country, has more pressing security interests elsewhere, and may do more harm than good by staying. Critics say the power vacuum that the U.S. is leaving behind will reignite a civil war and open the door to ethnic cleansing, gender apartheid, and state failure.
In these circumstances what’s needed is the steady hand of a robust international peacekeeping, peacebuilding, and peace-enforcement mission under the auspices of the United Nations. The U.S. should contribute to this mission, to be sure, but the reins must be surrendered to the international community.
The surprise of a planned withdrawal
While the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan has been enshrined in a previously negotiated agreement, the change of administration in Washington, developments in Afghanistan in recent months, and recommendations from foreign policy and conflict resolution experts, among other factors, indicated that a renegotiated agreement would likely follow US President Joe Biden’s entrance into office. Experts hoped to achieve a consolidated peace agreement in which Afghans and the Taliban were directly involved. However, the course of action turned out differently, and many more questions remain unanswered—hence the feeling of surprise.
The decision to forgo sustaining operations in Afghanistan is also reflective of the increasing US focus on Beijing and Moscow. According to experts, “the Biden team clearly has its sights set both on reducing lower-priority operations and shifting a wide variety of resources increasingly over time to strengthen deterrence in the region” and contend with the “geopolitical and security challenges posed by China.” [vii]
In a press conference addressing the withdrawal on April 16, Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby addressed the need to refocus the United States’ energy on new threats, including on Russia: “We certainly have obvious and deep concerns about where Russia is going, not only in the region but around the world. We’ve got continued malign activity from Iran and the Middle East. And of course, there’s North Korea, where there are a plethora of significant challenges and threats.”[viii]
There are about 10,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan with the mission to train national forces. Local forces are taking the lead in counterterrorism operations, including the air force, which runs its own missions. However, the Afghan military still relies heavily on US and NATO assistance.
According to Obaid Ali, a likely scenario in Afghanistan will be “a free and uncontrollable security situation in September: without US airstrikes and air support, the Afghan army will be powerless in the face of insurgents.” As the US prepares to withdraw, desertions from the Afghan army are growing. Soldiers and police lack the necessary equipment, and many say they have not been paid for months.[ix]
The aid promised until the withdrawal of troops is intended to secure foreign troops.
Additionally, let us not forget that the Taliban has so far failed to comply with the three requirements of the Doha agreement: reduce violence, stop cooperation with other terrorist networks, and start negotiations with Afghan government officials. There is reason to believe that the Taliban’s political program is to seize power and return to the country’s religious leadership. The Afghan government has released more than 5,000 Taliban prisoners in 2020, most of who have returned to the battlefield. The Taliban also continues to collaborate with other terrorist groups with which they had promised to cut ties.
Looking at the deal as merely a pretext for the Trump (now Biden) administration to begin withdrawing its troops, it is nearly impossible to believe that the Taliban would give up its goals after 20 years of fighting.
The Taliban controls more than half of the country’s territory, most of it in rural areas, and it is clear for any strategist that they cannot be defeated.
The reality is that the United States, which struggled to help secure better rights for women and minorities and install a democratic system and institutions in Afghanistan, has struck a deal with an insurgency that has never clearly renounced its desire for a government and justice system rooted in a severe interpretation of Islam. The Taliban achieved their primary goal following this agreement—the withdrawal of American troops. However, they have remained vague in commitments to protect the civil rights that they had brutally repressed when in power.
Furthermore, the biggest threat to Afghanistan comes from the geographical position of the country, which borders Iran, Russia, and China. These countries have so far supported the Taliban movement with weapons and ammunitions, according to the latest Pentagon report [vi]. Without a US or NATO presence in the country, there is no guarantee that modern equipment such as portable anti-aircraft systems or even small drones will not be used by the Taliban if they return to ruling Afghanistan.
Mr. Khalilzad, the veteran diplomat leading the American peace efforts, himself a native of Afghanistan, has long insisted that the United States was not seeking a withdrawal agreement but “a peace agreement that enables withdrawal.”[x]
However, this could not be achieved. The Taliban does not want to talk to the Afghan authorities, which they never acknowledged. Efforts to form a peaceful government will not be concentrated in a few months. In order to achieve a responsible end to the war, the international community has to envision a new approach for Afghanistan to support the local authorities and to maintain the achievements so far.
In a report by the Afghanistan Study Group, a bipartisan panel charged by US Congress to examine the February 2020 peace agreement made under the Trump administration, found that withdrawing troops based on a strict timeline, rather than how well the Taliban adheres to the agreement to reduce violence and improve security, risked the stability of the country and a potential civil war once international forces withdraw.[xi]
After the decision was announced, a good initiative came from the Atlantic Council, which recently released a landmark document Transatlantic Charter on Afghan Sovereignty, Security, and Development. This report proposes key tenets for the trilateral relationship: the essential need for deeper cooperation and coordination with Afghans as critical partners; the understanding that durable peace must be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned; the importance of reaching a strategic consensus on relations between Afghanistan and its neighbors based on non-interference, sovereignty, and territorial integrity; and the critical necessity of moving beyond short-term deadlines and instead adopting a long-term perspective in advancing peace, security, and stability in Afghanistan.[xii]
A very important decision will be how to hand over the leadership of the peace agreement implementation process—whether to an international organization or a regional coalition—precisely to eliminate this perception of occupation and to respect a deal that was ignored by the Taliban. An extended monitoring mechanism is more than necessary.
The Taliban have already warned that they will not sit at the negotiating table until all foreign troops leave Afghan territory. In Kabul, as well as among foreign observers, the forecasts are pessimistic. “It is certain that there can be no peace process without the participation of the Taliban,” said Andrew Watkins, the International Crisis Group’s Afghanistan Specialist.[xiii]
Another idea on shifting the approach towards Afghanistan and the role of the international community is to not be so engaged on the number of troops but on how to support the political process. For most of the last 20 years, the military supported the political processes in Afghanistan. Albeit more difficult than projecting stability, exporting peace and democracy would be a more vital objective to achieve.
Projecting stability and a responsible end to the conflict
In the latest study released by The International Institute for Strategic Studies, “Promoting and Projecting Stability: Challenges and Perspectives,” the authors conclude, “Stabilization is a dynamic process aimed at containing violence in conflicts and reducing displacement, while providing an impetus for initial reconciliation efforts.”[xiv] Promoting stability and fostering peace in an increasingly volatile security environment is one of NATO’s strategic ambitions. However, stability is a challenging endeavor at the best of times.
NATO’s two main objectives as defined at the Warsaw Summit in 2016 were Defence and Deterrence and Projecting Stability.[xv] Projecting stability is a concept that recognizes the need for NATO to have stable neighbours on its periphery. Fragile, failed, and conflict-ridden states on NATO’s borders are a threat to its populations at home. This threat can be seen every day through uncontrolled migration and terrorism. As part of the projecting stability initiative, NATO can play a stronger role in training local forces in fragile states and in building their security institutions.[xvi]
Projecting stability is not a new mission for NATO. Indeed, two waves of stability-projection can be identified: one, directed eastwards and launched after the end of the Cold War, and another targeting the Alliance’s South, which has been ongoing since the 2016 Warsaw Summit.
Many studies focus on the question of whether or not the Alliance may currently be unfit to project stability across the Mediterranean. Wider cultural differences, a deeply ingrained wariness of organisations perceived as aligned with US national interests, and the impossibility of rewarding recipient countries’ reforms with NATO membership inevitably make projecting stability to Europe’s South more problematic than previous stability-projection initiatives to the East.[xvii]
This broad approach to security—projecting stability—is demonstrated by the wide geographic and functional range of NATO’s current operational commitments. This was demonstrated most clearly of all in the operation in Afghanistan. Given the withdrawal of troops and NATO engagement in Afghanistan, we ask ourselves the legitimate question: how will this withdrawal of troops shape NATO’s goal of projecting stability?
If we want to look more closely at the Resolute Support mission, which was launched in 2015 and replaced ISAF, it implements tenets of what NATO defines as projecting stability: training, advice, and assistance for the Afghan security forces and institutions. From this point of view we can consider that NATO has accomplished its objective; however, we should also ask whether or not the results will be maintained even after the withdrawal of the troops, especially after the cessation of the counterinsurgency.
If the Taliban moves forward, will the international community engage in a scenario based on the model of intervention in Libya by invoking the principle of responsibility to protect (R2P) with the invitation of the Afghan government, like in the case of Iraq?
The intervention in Afghanistan began after the activation of Article 5 and continued in the fight against terrorism. The fact that it lasted so long, when, in my opinion, it should have ended at least after the death of Osama bin Laden, created space for the development of new motivations and justifications to continue operations in Afghanistan, which can no longer be sustained. Defending human rights and exporting democracy to Afghanistan are difficult goals to achieve.
Certainly, a prolonged conflict is complicated, and justifiably, it warrants many criticisms. However, I believe that from NATO’s point of view, this withdrawal defines its limits, both as a political-military alliance and as a promoter of projecting stability.
In order to stabilize Afghanistan, the conflict should have ended with a peace agreement. However, negotiating a peace agreement is beyond NATO’s mission.
In this context, how can we define success in projecting stability under the NATO umbrella?
For the future, the challenge remains to succeed in securing the results obtained and to impose sustainable changes.
About the Author
Liliana Filip is an international relations and security studies analyst and the founder and chairman of the Political Research Group, an NGO that conducts international projects on scientific research. After completing specialized courses at the Oberammergau NATO School as well as participating in training programs for NATO education and training entities, she has become a NATO expert for quality assurance management in education. She was also a parliamentary adviser for the National Defense, Public Order and National Security Committee of the Chamber of Deputies, part of the Parliament of Romania. She is currently a PhD candidate at the National School of Political and Administrative Studies, Bucharest, where, under the guidance of professor Ioan Mircea Paşcu, she conducts research on “The Forms of International Intervention after 9/11.” Liliana has participated in various young leadership programmes organized by prestigious organizations such as Young Political Leader Programme at the schools of political studies of the Council of Europe, Warsaw New Security Leaders organized by the Casimir Pulaski Foundation, Bruxelles Young Professionals organized by the German Marshal Fund, among others.
[i] Barry Pavel, William F. Wechsler, and Irfan Nooruddin, “FAST THINKING: Leaving Afghanistan, twenty years later,” Atlantic Council, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/content-series/fastthinking/fast-thinking-leaving-afghanistan-twenty-years-later/.
[ii] Colm Quinn, “Blinken Threatens May 1 Afghan Troop Withdrawal,” Foreign Policy, March 2021, https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/03/08/afghanistan-letter-blinken-ghani/.
[iii] Ezzatullah Mehrdad, “Moscow Conference on Afghan Peace: Two Steps Back for Women, One Step Forward for Peace,” The Diplomat, 23 March, 2021, https://thediplomat.com/2021/03/moscow-conference-on-afghan-peace-two-steps-back-for-women-one-step-forward-for-peace/
[iv] Jack Detsch, “Austin Calls for ‘Responsible’ End to Afghan War,” Foreign Policy, 21 March, 2021, https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/03/21/defense-secretary-austin-afghan-war-responsible-end/.
[v] Press conference by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg ahead of the meetings of NATO Foreign Ministers on 23 and 24 March 2021 at NATO Headquarters, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/opinions_182503.htm.
[vii] Makhfi Azizi, “Afghans’ views on the Doha peace process and the Biden administration’s review of the US-Taliban peace agreement,” Atlantic Council, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/southasiasource/what-do-afghans-think-of-the-ongoing-doha-peace-process-as-well-as-the-us-taliban-peace-deal-and-what-do-they-expect-from-the-biden-administrations-review/.
[viii] Terri Moon Cronk, “Any Terrorist Attack on U.S. Military Drawdown in Afghanistan Will Be Met Forcefully,” https://www.defense.gov/Explore/News/Article/Article/2575982/any-terrorist-attack-on-us-military-drawdown-in-afghanistan-will-be-met-forcefu/.
[ix] Pavel, Wechsler, and Nooruddin, “FAST THINKING.”
[x] Mujib Mashal, “Taliban and U.S. Strike Deal to Withdraw American Troops From Afghanistan,” New York Times, 29 February 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/29/world/asia/us-taliban-deal.html.
[xi] Senator Kelly A. Ayotte, General Joseph F. Dunford Jr. (Ret.), and Ms. Nancy Lindborg eds., Afghanistan Study Group Final Report: A pathway for peace in Afghanistan, United States Institute of Peace, February 2021.
[xii] Irfan Nooruddin, Marika Theros, Sahar Halaimzai, and Frederick Kempe, “A transatlantic charter for peace and security in Afghanistan,” South Asia Center – Atlantic Council, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/A-transatlantic-charter-for-peace-and-security-in-Afghanistan.pdf.
[xiii] Sune Engel Rasmussen and Jessica Donati, “U.S. Plan to Withdraw Troops From Afghanistan Hampers Peace Talks With Taliban,” The Wall Street Journal, 14 April 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-plan-to-withdraw-troops-from-afghanistan-hampers-peace-talks-with-taliban-11618417275.
[xiv] Amanda Lapo, Bastian Giegerich, and James Hackett, Promoting and Projecting Stability: Challenges and Perspectives, The International Institute for Strategic Studies, December 2020.
[xv] Warsaw Summit Communiqué Issued by the Heads of State and Government participating in the meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Warsaw 8-9 July 2016, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/official_texts_133169.htm.
[xvi] S. Costalli, “What Is ‘Stability’ and How to Achieve It?” in Projecting Stability in an Unstable World, S. Lucarelli, A. Marrone, and F. N. Moro eds., Allied Command Transformation, Università di Bologna, Istituto Affari Internazionali, 2017.
[xvii] Jeffrey A. Larsen and Kevin Koehler, “Projecting Stability to the South: NATO’s “New” Mission?” in Projecting Resilience Across the Mediterranean, Eugenio Cusumano, Stefan Hofmaier eds. (Springer International Publishing, 2020).
This publication was co-sponsored by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.