The Withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Western Coalition

Priyanjali Simon
15th January 2022

Picture Courtesy: Reuters

The fall of Kabul on 15 August and the hasty exit by American troops, has raised many questions on  what Afghanistan will descend into, the withering of Pax Americana and US multilateralism and what this means for its western allies. America’s relationship with western powers; most notably Canada, Britain, France and Germany were altered in the wake of U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan and its recent chaotic withdrawal has left these countries wondering if the US commitment to the values-based western-order, through the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation is iron clad. For officials in Europe, the chaotic withdrawal offers a contrasting picture to President Joe Biden’s “America is Back” clarion call.

If the image of aircrafts crashing into the World Trade Centre on September 11 kindled a feeling of solidarity among western powers for Washington, the image of Afghans desperately clinging to the side of a US military jet has left a starkly different sentiment. Less than 24 hours after 9/11, America’s western allies within NATO came together to invoke Article 5- an “attack on one” was to be considered an “attack on all.” However, when it came to multilateral operations in Afghanistan, the well-worn NATO issue of burden sharing surfaced again, but this time involving military personnel. The lack of true unity of command and effort inside The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) are thorny problems that create friction, especially when American-driven counter insurgency efforts clash with the softer NATO-driven “provide security and stability.”

The War and Deep Divides in the Coalition 

The Afghanistan campaign tested the strength of the transatlantic alliance in terms of how the US and other western European powers were going to coordinate the command structure of the ISAF mission. NATO’s command structure for Stages Three and Four in Afghanistan largely reflected Washington’s desire to see the allies embrace more counterinsurgency tasks. Reluctance on the part of some European countries to clash with the Taliban and warlords was evident during discussions. In fact, since the early years of the ISAF and OEF mission, countries like Britain, Germany and France questioned the merging of ISAF and OEF under one command. The Afghanistan quagmire became the catalyst for several issues that cropped between the US and other western powers. National caveats and Provincial Reconstruction Teams were principal issues that created a fault lines in the relationship. NATO “caveats” or restrictions that allied governments, place on the use of their forces complicated ISAF operations. Caveats pose difficult problems for commanders who seek maximum flexibility in utilizing troops under their command. At the 2006 NATO Summit in Riga, Germany’s reticence on sending additional troops into combat zones were addressed. Increasing the cap on caveats meant redeployment of German troops into danger zones. NATO commanders reiterated these caveats hampered the ability to move forces for missions and rescue other NATO forces that may get into trouble.

The problem of national caveats unfortunately did not remain isolated. It had also created issues in Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), a method to create peace and security within provinces. PRTs differ by geography, the specific security and development requirements of a given area as well as the practices and military cultures of contributing states. The problem of national caveats created a ripple effect on the ways in which forces had been used in the PRTs, making coordination complicated. For example, PRT leaders are more closely aligned with provincial governments than with central authorities. When provincial administrations were not completely aware of the central government’s intentions, especially because strategic rebuilding priorities were primarily established through collaboration between donors and the Afghan government; it presented a challenge regarding provincial administrations complying to PRTs. While the allied effort in Afghanistan may be applauded for reinvigorating the alliance, a lack of early strategic focus on reaching out to local governments and the grassroots have revealed fissures in diplomatic and military coordination between Europe and the US.

As the years went by, western powers were gradually pushed deeper into the conflict, and the institutional absence of defined and agreed-upon strategic goals became increasingly problematic. By 2006, a rift emerged in the coalition. At the NATO meeting in Riga, squabbles about military pledges to Afghanistan arose. The leaders agreed to lift certain national constraints on how, when, and where military forces could be utilized, but the squabbles persisted. The ISAF had now grown from a mostly noncombat and geographically constrained mandate around Kabul to one responsible for a complete spectrum of military activities across Afghanistan. The insurgency raged in southern Afghanistan, but different ISAF countries acted almost autonomously within their respective areas of responsibility, with widely varying priorities in counterterrorism, local security, development, security force and governance assistance, counter-narcotics, and other aspects of the counterinsurgency approach. The difficulties were exacerbated by short tour durations and frequent commander changes, as new individuals applied their own priorities and interpretations of strategic goals.

The ISAF’s main goal was to help the Afghan government provide adequate security throughout the nation and to train new Afghan security forces so that Afghanistan would never again be a safe haven for terrorists. While NATO had set out on a mission to provide security support, it ended up in a war with little debate on comprehensive actions required to bring stability to Afghanistan. The western powers eventually faced this issue and, by 2008, had reached an agreement on a clear and thorough approach. However, this occurred seven years into the fight. By this point, the war’s longevity had become a major problem, and after a new US President took office in 2009, the US approved a new plan that called for huge troop increases in 2009, and by 2011, President Obama announced the drawdown of troops.

Complexities While Closing the Afghanistan Chapter

Fatigue set in for western powers like France and Canada who threatened to unilaterally speed the withdrawal of their troops even before the conclusion of the NATO combat mission in 2014. This can be attributed to the complexity of resource allocation. While the Obama presidency announced a timetable for withdrawing most US forces from Afghanistan in 2014, it raised the issue of burden sharing forewarning the imminent rift in relations between the US and western powers. Even the Trump presidency showed continuity in asking allies to pay up. Parallel to this problem, squabbles on tariffs and Trump’s lack of diplomatic finesse towards European allies were not helpful in ironing out creases in the relationship.

Under the Biden administration, western allies have felt misled by the approach and implementation of the withdrawal. The main concern for western countries is the surge in migration. In 2015, European leaders were confronted with a flood of refugees escaping Syria’s civil war. Since the frantic departure from Afghanistan in August, western powers have seen the situation as merely a continuation of the United States’ long-standing desire to go it alone. But is this something new? It has long been a European gripe about the United States. That sense of déjà vu – that Europe has been here before – has resurrected the argument over “strategic autonomy,” which has long been an aim of EU foreign policy, notably for France, which seeks a more equal geopolitical balance with the US. The turmoil in Afghanistan and Europe’s reaction to it, adds to the impression that Europe’s warm reception of Joe Biden is waning. Still, the Afghanistan conundrum is not over; and much is yet to be seen on whether Washington is willing to sit and listen to its western partners.

*The Author is a Research Intern at the Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies (KIIPS).

 Disclaimer: The Views in the Article are of the Author