After Afghanistan, the United States tries to repair the trust gap with NATO

There is much soul-searching in Brussels, as the United States and its NATO partners conduct an ongoing review of the lessons learned from their two-decade operation in Afghanistan.

Some experts wonder how far the United States and NATO are willing to go in terms of accepting blame for mission failures, not only during the chaotic and hasty evacuation of citizens and allied partners, but throughout the entire undertaking of the mission. 20 years. NATO Assistant Secretary-General for Operations John Manza recently told European Union lawmakers that one of the big lessons his team is discussing is mission advancement – a gradual shift in objectives over the course of a military campaign, which often results in a long unplanned time. -Term commitment.

“The desire to build a comprehensive and self-sufficient state turned out to be a lot to ask in terms of time and resources. Generally speaking, the first seven or eight years in Afghanistan were an economy of force. In 2003, everything was overwhelmed by the war in Iraq, and Afghanistan never received much attention or strategic resources. It was not until 2008, in the last months of the George W. Bush administration, that a comprehensive review of the Afghan strategy was carried out. Think about that, ”Jason Campbell, former US Department of Defense country director for Afghanistan, told The Media Line. Campbell worked out of the defense secretary’s office, serving as a contact person in efforts to facilitate an Afghan peace process and engaging with NATO partners and allies who contribute to the Mission of Resolute Support.

A conflict that lacked resources and was neglected took a turn after the troop surge in 2010, led by then-President of the United States, Barack Obama. But the 375,000-member Afghan National Security Forces built by the US-led coalition were not sustainable, and at the time it was difficult to make changes and admit defeat or failure.

“Over time, the footprint of the United States, along with NATO, began to dissipate. The simultaneous effort to develop Afghan institutions, to build a robust bureaucracy in a country with minimal experience in that, with a central government that never merged into something that represented democracy … is obvious to everyone now, “Campbell said.

A TALIBAN member stands guard as Afghan men take photos of a rocket-fired vehicle in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 30 (credit: STRINGER / REUTERS).

The review reportedly includes consideration of whether NATO should be willing to take on so-called “out-of-area missions.” The outcome of those discussions could have dramatic implications for how the United States and its partners deal with China’s expansive ambitions.

“From the perspective of the United States, one of the initial areas of focus is to repair some of the lack of commitment and trust that encapsulated the last years of American involvement in Afghanistan. It wasn’t as robust as it could have been, ”Campbell said.

“When (then US Secretary of Defense James) Mattis took office, the US took a forward-thinking approach to the alliance, which the US would remain committed to, and the US lobbied for others to do so. do the same. Most stayed and some increased their strength levels through 2018, ”Campbell said.

In December 2018, then-US President Donald Trump announced the reduction of troops in Syria and Afghanistan, contrary to the messages that had been communicated to the allies. Mattis resigned shortly after.

“Since then, the perception is that the United States increasingly participated unilaterally in the peace talks, led by Ambassador (US envoy to the Taliban), Zalmay Khalilzad, and that the United States was making its own decisions, perhaps informing the alliance, but without bringing them up for discussion and deliberation, ”Campbell said.

The United States is now trying to get to the forefront of NATO’s strategy toward a Taliban-led Afghanistan.

“We are preparing for an upcoming round of US interagency engagement with the Taliban. It is imperative that allies act and work together effectively when it comes to securing our interests in Afghanistan. It is also imperative that we work with the region – with Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran and the Central Asian states – in our common and ongoing interest in a stable Afghanistan that does not pose a threat to its neighbors, is at peace with itself and respects human rights, women’s rights, minority rights, etc. “West told reporters this week.

The most urgent step is to prevent the current crisis from becoming a catastrophe leading to possible mass migration to Europe, which is a worrying thought for many political leaders in that country. It is an area in which the US has influence and can help its European partners.

“The Taliban have very clearly and openly expressed their desire to normalize relations with the international community; view a resume of help; see the return of the international diplomatic community to Kabul; to see the sanctions relief. And the United States cannot deliver any of these things on our own, and we have to work together with the international community to make those things happen. But that’s not a small give and take and again we just want to first consult with our like-minded partners on exactly what the roadmap looks like, ”said West.

It is almost certain that that roadmap would imply an opening by the United States to consider unique avenues for the provision of humanitarian aid and other economic aid that, at least in theory, will not reach the hands of the Taliban rulers. West said the United States is considering proposals to unfreeze billions of dollars in reserves, along with international monetary agencies that provide regular salaries to Afghan citizens, but that consultations with allies and internally with the United States Congress on such proposals are still pending. are ongoing.

Longer-term concerns, of course, revolve around the return of violent extremism exported from Afghanistan. The withdrawal of NATO from the country and the declared plan of the United States to contact the so-called counterterrorism operations “on the horizon” leave many allies and experts concerned.

“Over the horizon is a phrase that is said a lot, but it does not have a formal definition that means the same for everyone. In 2016, that could have meant reserves that could be withdrawn from Gulf states like Qatar or the United Arab Emirates, which could be withdrawn to respond to an attack. Now it means tracking down the Taliban and carrying out attacks based on a concept that has not been fully developed. It is at a point where no one can know to what extent it can be successful or mitigated, “said Campbell.

The most likely new US counterterrorism presence in the region would be in Pakistan, which West will visit this week. But Pakistan does not have the best record when it comes to national security issues, and Pakistani officials have publicly criticized the United States in recent days for the lack of clarity about the United States’ plans for its follow-up mission in Afghanistan.

“Pakistan has never been a trusted partner. They have been deceptive for more than 20 years, and many in the world of national security would have to accept that reality and they would have to be careful. Pakistan can be dealt with with transactional measures, but be aware that it has a host of other geopolitical and internal concerns, including its relations with the Taliban and China, other cross-border militant organizations and dealing with its own insurgents, ”Campbell. he said, adding that the United States and NATO are on the defensive in terms of alternatives in the region.

China and Russia have been steadfast in engaging the highest levels of the Taliban to gauge the degree to which they can retain their stature in Afghanistan, to truly rule and be a more productive partner than the US and NATO-backed government of the United States. last 20 years. years. Both China and Russia also seek to prevent the impact of extremism and narcotics smuggling in their respective countries. China has mining interests in Afghanistan, and 15 years of investment has done little for security and other problems. China is interested in securing a land route to Iran and points beyond in the event of a naval or other conflict that limits waterways in the region. Qatar is also trying to retain influence and contest Pakistan in that area, while the Saudis and the UAE are upset about the Taliban’s ties to Iran, leading to a host of geopolitical complications, in addition to the terrible crisis. Heading into Afghanistan’s brutal winter. .

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