NATO defense ministers took part in what was undoubtedly a painful (albeit somewhat superficial) soul-searching exercise over Afghanistan this week in their first full-fledged meeting since the Taliban captured the country back this summer.
The nearly two-decade-long nation-building project – which involved the deployment of large-scale forces outside the European theater, the Western military alliance’s traditional turf – has been the subject of an ongoing “learned exercise” since this summer’s tumultuous, deadly evacuation from Kabul.
However, some observers wonder how far the institution is willing to go to come to terms with – and perhaps blame – a lost war.
The review allegedly includes considerations of whether the alliance should be willing to undertake so-called “out-of-field missions” – a political discussion that has profound implications in light of China’s progress and the weight the Biden administration in the United States attaches. containing Beijing’s ambitions.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said there was much to consider.
“The course of the lesson should focus on both what did not work but also what worked,” he said. “Because, of course, it is a tragedy for the Afghan people [the] The Taliban is back. It is heartbreaking for all of us who have supported Afghanistan for so many years, but at the same time, we should acknowledge that we actually achieved significant results.
“Our mission was not in vain.”
The alliance remains ready to attack terrorist groups trying to reconstruct themselves within Afghanistan’s borders, Stoltenberg added.
“We prevented Afghanistan from being a safe haven for international terrorists and prevented any attack on any NATO ally over 20 years,” he said. “Now we want to be vigilant and preserve those gains.”
Stoltenberg also said that during talks between NATO defense ministers on Thursday and Friday, the ministers congratulated the United States and each other on having evacuated 120,000 people – Western citizens and vulnerable Afghan nationals – from Kabul.
The sense of accomplishment contrasts with the scenes of chaos and horror – including images of desperate Afghans clinging to the wheels of transport planes – marking the final days of the Western mission.
Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan personally attended and said he has confidence in the ongoing review.
“As I said at the NATO Defense Ministers’ Meeting, Canada supports the Alliance’s’ lessons’ review for Afghanistan to identify where we have succeeded but also where we can improve,” Sajjan said in a media statement. “It is crucial that this process is thorough and honest. We look forward to the results.”
With the Liberal government announcing a new cabinet, the gathering of ministers could be Sajjan’s last official meeting with his colleagues.
Much of the discussion at this week’s meeting was dominated by issues that were more familiar to the Alliance’s 30 member ministers – and probably more predictable. They included Russia’s recent decision to end its cooperation by closing its NATO headquarters in Brussels, as well as political issues such as nuclear deterrence and strategy.
But Afghanistan was NATO’s preoccupation for 20 years, seen throughout that time as a test of its will and skill.
Could NATO withdraw to Europe?
The rapid collapse of NATO-trained Afghan forces is causing some to wonder whether the alliance should simply stick to Europe and Russia’s deterrence.
It’s a performance that allegedly came around during the two days of conversations. It would not be a surprising position for NATO to take, as the Alliance has in the past been reluctant to take on so-called “out of area” missions.
Steve Saideman is a NATO expert at Carleton University in Ottawa. He said the alliance deliberately limited its involvement in the 2011 Libyan campaign to air support and avoided any intervention in Syria.
Saideman said he wonders how deeply the alliance will think about its Afghan failures and whether it will have any bearing on any of the 30 members at all.
“To learn homework, you have to admit that you are making mistakes and you have to find the blame,” he said.
Canada has not conducted its own comprehensive exercise on the war, mostly because no one wants to admit that mistakes were made, Saideman added.