It’s Not Just the Shame – NATO’s Challenges after Afghanistan

NATO Ministers have been meeting in Brussels this week. They always look pleased with themselves during the photo-opportunities. But on this occasion perhaps they should look a bit more ashamed. It may be tempting for them to shrug at the fate of Afghanistan and urge the alliance to ‘move on’. There is, after all, plenty to worry about nearer to home. But if NATO leaders want to ignore Afghanistan, it is unlikely that Afghanistan will ignore them. The strategic fall-out from the debacle has only just begun. Michael Clarke outlines the issues.

NATO’s commitment to the Afghanistan operation was big. The alliance led the International Security Assistance Force from 2003 to 2014 – a mission that involved some 50 alliance members and partners and which at its 2012 peak deployed 130,000 troops in-theatre, almost half of them from countries other than the United States. In 2015 NATO established the Resolution Support Mission to offer specialist military training and give the Afghan government some sort of air force.

It all came crashing down in September with the humiliating withdrawal of western forces and the chaotic evacuation of 120,000 vulnerable civilians, leaving countless others to their uncertain fate inside Afghanistan. It was about as bad as western military withdrawals have ever got in the last seventy years; a dramatic and undeniable strategic defeat for the US, in which the NATO alliance itself must share the ignominy.

But living down this defeat goes a long way beyond accepting the ignominy. In a geopolitical sense, it shows that the US has given up its interest in Central Asia. China and Russia are the ultimate strategic winners; China to develop its interests in Afghanistan’s valuable minerals and in further developing its Belt and Road Initiative from Kashgar in Xinjiang to Gwaidar in Pakistan; Russia in recovering the political influence it lost to the US in Central Asian countries such as Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and, of course, Kazakhstan.  

Central Asia may not be part of Europe’s security perimeter, but these countries matter to the Europeans, both economically and politically. The NATO Secretary General has already highlighted the way China challenges the role of western democracies in the world, and now increasingly their domestic security and economic prospects. The Russian challenge to European security has been clear since the Georgia war of 2008, but the Chinese challenge is different, more recent and diffused – and no less a threat to Europe’s prosperity and stability. 

And then there is the effect of the Afghanistan defeat on the transatlantic relationship; the most central pillar of the whole alliance – that which brought it about and has sustained it in being since 1950. Despite all the Biden Administration’s protestations that the US ‘was back’ in the world after the Trump presidency, the reality of the Afghanistan defeat for the Europeans has felt pretty much the same. There was a bit more advance notice of the pull-out than Trump normally provided, but still no allied consultation and certainly no chance that Washington might deviate from its predetermined policy.

The same was true a month later in the announcement of the ‘AUKUS’ defence agreement between the US, Australia and the United Kingdom. It was a rapid and highly secret negotiation. But it was secret not to keep it from the Chinese or the Russians, but from France – a key US ally and a major player in European security. The NATO fall-out from that bit of US unilateralism (and British complicity in it) will certainly last for some time yet.

The Europeans must hope that the Biden Presidency will not be defined by the Afghanistan defeat. What was intended by President Biden to be a calculated risk over a tough decision turned into a full-scale political blunder from which he may find it difficult to recover internationally. And domestically Biden has already made it clear that his foreign policy should be judged on its benefits to the ‘American people’. Of course, there are some big differences between the Biden and Trump approaches to the outside world – action on climate change for one – but in dealing with the NATO allies, there may be less difference between them than most European leaders would like to hope.

The Afghanistan example underlines yet again what, in truth, we have known for years; that Europe is no longer America’s first priority. Washington has three broad security fronts to worry about; the Pacific, the Arctic and Europe. The last of these three will need – at long last – to look after itself to a much greater degree if Washington is to remain interested in genuinely collective approaches in Europe.

Not least, the effect on NATO of the Afghanistan defeat may be felt closer to home through the effect it has on the confidence of the Kremlin to keep its European/Mediterranean agenda in high gear. The temptation to challenge the US commitment to its allies at such a difficult time for them might be very attractive to President Putin. To put NATO under real pressure somewhere along its extended 30-nation border, perhaps to create a political crisis among Russian minorities and then militarise it; or to push harder in a looming East Mediterranean crisis, might become increasingly tempting.

Just as China may feel that western disarray offers the best early chance to ‘recover’ Taiwan, so the Kremlin might judge that the same goes for launching a political torpedo at NATO that might hole it beneath the waterline.

These are good times for bad policies. And NATO leaders will need all the political skills acquired over seventy years to get through the geostrategic ripples of Afghanistan. Even if they can live with the shame of it. 

Professor Michael Clarke’s forthcoming book, Britain’s Persuaders: Soft Power in a Hard World, is published on 18 November 2021.

Twitter: @MikeClarke2020s Website:

Photo: Meeting of NATO Ministers of Defence at NATO Headquarters, Brussels, 21-22 October 2021. Copyright: NATO. For the original, see here.