Nearly two decades of Allied and partner efforts in Afghanistan under the NATO banner came to an end in 2021. Allied and partner military forces deployed to Afghanistan under a UN mandate in 2001 after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States to deny international terrorist networks in the country the ability to organise and launch attacks on NATO member countries. Allies and partners accomplished this original guiding mandate: No terrorist attacks were launched from Afghanistan on Allied territory since 2001.
Yet, as NATO official statements make clear, the terrorist challenge has evolved significantly since NATO and its international partners first went into Afghanistan. This shift in the challenge international terrorism poses to Allies and their forces was a key justification for the withdrawal from Afghanistan, and it has driven the shift in tactics and focus of the Alliance’s terrorism policy.
During their years in Afghanistan, Allies and partners engaged in a range of political and military efforts, from combat operations to cooperative security outreach to humanitarian development projects. These initiatives strove to allow the Afghan government to exercise its authority over all Afghan territory and build the capacity of the Afghan national security forces and, eventually, to create a strong and stable government capable of guaranteeing peace and stability for all Afghans.
In parallel to these efforts, the NATO Parliamentary Assembly engaged extensively on Afghanistan: Committee reporting and parliamentary missions to Afghanistan regularly reviewed in-country developments, assessed international efforts and recommended next steps. This international parliamentary scrutiny had the purpose of informing member state parliamentarians about their national investments in the country, which they in turn could use to explain to their citizens the importance of maintaining the Afghanistan mission. The NATO PA also invited members of the Afghan parliament to Assembly sessions, seminars and training programmes. These parliamentary diplomatic initiatives fostered mutual understanding and created important linkages between Afghanistan and the transatlantic community.
In February 2020, however, the United States and the Taliban signed an agreement on the withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan by May 2021. In April 2021, NATO foreign and defence ministers confirmed the decision to withdraw all remaining forces from the Resolute Support Mission by 1 May to be completed by 11 September.
However, the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces collapsed quickly over the 2021 summer fighting season. In parallel, NATO turned its attention to guaranteeing the safe exit of Allied and partner personnel as well as NATO-affiliated Afghans. After the fall of Kabul on 15 August, Allies organised and executed the evacuation of over 122,000 foreign nationals and vulnerable Afghan citizens by 30 August. This was one of the largest airlift evacuations in history.
During a 24 August 2021 Bureau meeting, President Gerald E. Connolly (United States) highlighted the active efforts which his own legislative office and those of many Assembly members put in place to support the evacuation. “Since the Taliban takeover of Kabul, I and my staff have been working around the clock to assist individuals at risk,” he told his colleagues. “I know that many of you are engaged in similar efforts. [...] We cannot let those Afghans down who have stood by us for many years.” By October, Mr Connolly’s office, for example, had submitted some 20,000 names to the US Department of State for urgent assistance.
Since the end of NATO’s presence in the country, almost the entire international community evacuated Afghanistan. The Taliban-Haqqani governance partnership that assumed power in Kabul after the collapse of the Western-backed government reinforced the country’s international isolation by reimposing the draconian laws for which it was known when it ruled Afghanistan prior to 2001. The combination of international isolation, the withdrawal of direct international aid and general mismanagement have since plunged the country into chaos marked by a collapsed economy and grave humanitarian crisis.
The lessons learned from NATO efforts in Afghanistan featured prominently at the Assembly’s 2021 Annual Session. Key NATO officials, most notable Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, briefed Assembly Committees on the preliminary findings of the Alliance’s lessons learned process and the Assembly’s Standing Committee – its governing body – held a first exchange of views. The Assembly also adopted a resolution urging “a thorough, clear-eyed, and comprehensive assessment of the Alliance’s 20-year engagement in Afghanistan”.
The Assembly remains focused on Afghanistan. Committee reports in 2022 assess the military and political lessons learned, the evolution of the humanitarian crisis and the state of the terrorism threat facing Allies following their withdrawal from Afghanistan (see Developments in Afghanistan: Causes, Consequences, and Lessons Learned and The Evolving Threat of Terrorism: Adapting the Allied Response). In addition, over the winter of 2021, the Assembly partnered with the Dutch Parliament to conduct a survey of how various Allied parliaments are reflecting on their countries’ participation and contribution to the NATO mission in Afghanistan. Some preliminary findings of the survey are highlighted in the first-mentioned report above. Key among them is the recommendation for Allied parliaments to consider how to incorporate stronger parliamentary oversight within the civil-military nexus in NATO missions and operations.
The NATO 2022 Strategic Concept notes the Alliance will also continue to draw on the lessons learned from its operations in Afghanistan in its crisis prevention and management efforts. A deeper understanding of successful and unsuccessful initiatives over the two decades of effort in Afghanistan, the Strategic Concept notes, will help Allies continue to ensure they have the resources, capabilities and training necessary to engage in effective military and civilian crisis management, stabilisation and counter-terrorism operations.