Afghanistan and the Future of NATO

Things aren’t going well in Afghanistan. Sometime at the turn of 2001/2002, the Bush administration concluded that the stabilization and reconstruction of Afghanistan was no longer its top priority and decided to bet instead on military-led regime change in Iraq. Afghanistan can thus rightly be seen as the first victim of the administration’s misguided strategy.

But the Bush administration is not the sole culprit for the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. It was NATO’s job to ensure the country’s stability and security, and thus NATO’s weak General Secretary and the European allies, especially Germany and France, share the responsibility for the worsening situation.

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Yet, despite all the difficulties, the situation in Afghanistan, unlike that in Iraq, is not hopeless. There was a good reason for going to war in Afghanistan in the first place, because the attacks of September 11, 2001, originated there. Once undertaken, the West’s intervention ended an almost uninterrupted civil war, and is still viewed with approval by a majority of the population. Finally, unlike in Iraq, the intervention did not fundamentally rupture the inner structure of the Afghan state or threaten its very cohesion.

If the West pursues realistic aims, and does so with perseverance, its main objective – a stable central government that can drive back the Taliban, hold the country together and, with the help of the international community, ensure the country’s development – is still achievable.

There are four preconditions of the West’s success:

  • establishment of Afghan security forces strong enough to drive back the Taliban, limit drug cultivation, and create domestic stability;
  • willingness on the part of NATO to remain militarily engaged without any national reservations – with Germany and France in particular giving up the special conditions of their involvement;
  • a significant increase in development aid, especially for the so far neglected Southern part of the country;
  • renewal of the regional consensus reached in Bonn in 2001, under which the reconstruction of the Afghan state was to be supported by all the parties concerned.

The war in Afghanistan was never just an Afghan civil war; rather, for decades the country has been a stage of regional conflicts and hegemonic struggles. So, while the rebirth of the Taliban is in part due to the woefully neglected reconstruction of the Pashto Southern and Eastern part of the country, it also has external causes. Most notably, for more than two years now, Pakistan has been moving away from the Bonn consensus, betting on the rebirth of the Taliban and giving it massive support. Indeed, without Taliban sanctuaries on the Pakistani side of the Afghan border, and without Pakistani financial backing, the rebirth of the Taliban’s armed insurgency against the central Afghan government would have been impossible.

Pakistan’s actions are explained mainly by its strategic readjustment in light of US weakness in Iraq and the region as a whole, and by the newly strengthened relationships between India and Afghanistan, resulting in an increased Indian presence in Central Asia. In this connection, Pakistan views the Karzai government in Kabul as unfriendly to Islamabad and a threat to its key strategic interests. Without Taliban sanctuaries on the Pakistani side of the Afghan border and the backing by the Pakistani intelligence service ISI, the rebirth of the Taliban’s armed insurgency against the central Afghan government would have been impossible.

But, by aiding the Taliban, Pakistan is playing with fire, because there are now also Pakistani Talibans who pose a threat to Pakistan. US policy toward Pakistan is also dangerously shortsighted and reminiscent of the mistakes the US made in Iran prior to the 1979 Islamic revolution. Nevertheless, the US at least has a Pakistan policy – which is more than can be said about NATO and Europe. In fact, it is all but incomprehensible that while the future of NATO is being decided in the Hindu Kush mountains, and while thousands of European soldiers stationed there are risking their lives, Pakistan – the key to the success or failure of the mission in Afghanistan – is not given any role in NATO’s plans and calculations.

Part of NATO’s trouble stems from the fact that a number of member states insist on the right to make their own military and political decisions, and these “national reservations” severely limit NATO’s ability to act. If NATO is to succeed, this must change without further delay.

A NATO summit, during which all members would take stock of the situation and draw the appropriate conclusions, is therefore long overdue. The national reservations must be go, and a joint strategy for success must be adopted, including a massive increase in civilian and military aid for Afghanistan, if the country is to be prevented from descending into the same abyss as Iraq.

Moreover, a regional consensus among all the players must be rebuilt, including Pakistan, Iran, and India, whose joint responsibility for peace, stability, and redevelopment in Afghanistan must be recognized by Europe and the US. To accomplish this, a follow-up conference to the Bonn Agreement is also required.

While the war in Iraq has been based on wishful thinking, the war in Afghanistan was necessary and unavoidable because it was there that the terrorist threat of September 11, 2001, originated. It would be more than a tragedy – it would be unparalleled political folly – if, because of a lack of commitment and political foresight, the West were to squander its successes in Afghanistan. Europe would have to pay an unacceptably high price, and NATO’s future would likely be jeopardized.