The North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Lessons from Afghanistan

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Disponible en français.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) experience in the Afghanistan conflict over almost 20 years was unprecedented for the Alliance in terms of both its origin and its scope. Following the unexpectedly swift collapse of the Afghan government and military in August 2021, NATO foreign ministers pledged to “fully reflect on our engagement in Afghanistan and draw the necessary lessons.”

These lessons are relevant to Canada, not least because Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan was its largest military deployment since the Second World War and saw its highest fatalities since the Korean War. It also involved significant integration with the other aspects of Canada’s international policy, including diplomacy and development. Moreover, the Alliance’s reflection on how it will consider and implement future activities beyond its immediate area of responsibility will be important given the priority Canada places on an effective and credible NATO.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Afghanistan

Immediately after the Al-Qaeda terrorist attacks against the United States (U.S.) in September 2001, NATO Allies decided to invoke their Article 5 collective defence commitment for the first time. Doing so demonstrated not only solidarity and the transatlantic bond, but also adaptability in confronting new security threats.

Some Allies, including Canada, sent forces to assist the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, whose Taliban rulers had sheltered Al-Qaeda terrorists. The administration of then President George W. Bush was initially reluctant to accept a formal NATO role, preferring instead to lead an ad hoc coalition of states.

By 2003, however, NATO had taken command of the United Nations–mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan and subsequently led its expansion throughout the country. This would become NATO’s largest and most complex operation and its first operational commitment beyond Europe. It eventually involved both counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations, as well as state-building activities.

ISAF peaked at more than 130,000 troops from some 50 NATO and partner countries. It ended in 2014 when responsibility for the security of Afghanistan was transferred to the Afghan security forces. In 2015, NATO shifted to a smaller, non-combat Resolute Support Mission, focused on training, advising and assisting Afghan security forces and institutions. Following the rapid collapse of the Afghan government and the security forces NATO had trained, that mission ended in early September 2021.

Canada in Afghanistan

Canada’s whole-of-government engagement in Afghanistan was one of the most significant defence and foreign affairs experiences it had undertaken in decades, dominating the attention of Canadian governments and parliaments for years. More than 40,000 Canadian military, diplomatic, development and other personnel served in Afghanistan, mostly between 2001 and 2014 as part of ISAF and primarily in Kandahar province, which was the Taliban’s heartland. Canada lost 159 military personnel and seven civilians, while more than 2,000 military personnel were wounded. It also spent some $3.6 billion in international assistance. Canada ended its combat mission in Afghanistan in 2011 and trained Afghan security forces until 2014 but did not participate in the Resolute Support Mission.

One Part of a Larger Effort

NATO’s experience in Afghanistan evolved into a long-term crisis management operation that involved a wide range of activities in a poorly understood and distant country.

Afghanistan expert and former United Kingdom parliamentarian Rory Stewart has argued that, following experiences with other interventions, the international approach to Afghanistan focused on “universal plans and extensive resources” [subscription required]. However, insufficient attention was paid to local factors, such as the development challenges of that country, its political realities, the inability of its economy to effectively absorb massive foreign assistance and the corrosiveness of corruption.

While it experienced coordination, burden-sharing and other challenges in Afghanistan, NATO proved adaptable, maintained a high degree of political unity and achieved some important security successes. Yet the broader international effort was unable to consolidate an effective and resilient state. This led many to emphasize the need for the Alliance to avoid “mission creep” (expansion) and prioritize realism.

Learning Lessons

All Allies participated in the Afghanistan lessons learned exercise, which looked at both political and military issues. The exercise was completed by November 2021 to allow it to be discussed by NATO foreign ministers at a December 2021 meeting and to inform the negotiation of a new NATO Strategic Concept, which will be approved in June 2022.

The lessons learned exercise identified key conclusions and recommendations. The summary of the lessons learned highlighted that Allies should:

  • continually assess strategic interests, remain aware of the dangers of mission expansion, seek to avoid taking on commitments that go well beyond assigned tasks and establish realistic and achievable goals;
  • consider how to maintain the military interoperability and political dialogue that was gained;
  • carefully consider local political and cultural norms and absorptive capacity when undertaking “train, advise and assist” missions;
  • improve internal Alliance reporting and consultations; and
  • consider how to strengthen capabilities to support short-notice non-combatant evacuation operations.

Underlying Realities

Canadian academic Roland Paris wrote that the end of NATO’s Afghanistan experience “reminded everyone of painful realities they preferred not to face.” These include differences in the relative capabilities of Allies, frustrations between them and the current priorities of U.S. foreign policy, all of which have implications for Canada.

Although NATO takes decisions by consensus, the U.S. is first among equals in practice due to its military resources and capabilities. This was reflected in Afghanistan, where U.S. decisions on priorities, resources, approaches and timelines largely determined those of NATO.

In February 2020, without the participation of the Government of Afghanistan, the Trump administration signed an agreement with the Taliban that envisaged the withdrawal of U.S. and other foreign forces from that country by 2021. NATO’s summary of its lessons learned exercise stated that “Allies would have benefitted [from] more meaningful discussions on the negotiations of the US-Taliban agreement.”

Tensions between the U.S. and other NATO Allies are not new but were particularly evident during the Bush and Trump administrations. In the aftermath of the September 2001 attacks, the Bush administration shifted U.S attention and resources from Afghanistan to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. For its part, the Trump administration pressed Allies to increase defence spending while at the same time questioning the value of the Alliance. After years of policy disagreements, such as those over activities in Syria, in November 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron spoke of the “brain death” of NATO [subscription required]. Trust and consultation are key requirements between Allies, and, only weeks later, NATO leaders agreed in the London Declaration to begin a review process to further strengthen the Alliance’s political dimension.

The Biden administration places greater emphasis on multilateralism and alliances than did the Trump administration. However, it decided to fulfill its predecessor’s Afghanistan withdrawal commitment with few changes. Following consultations, in April 2021, Allies issued a North Atlantic Council ministerial statement on Afghanistan that noted that “[o]ur troops went into Afghanistan together, we have adjusted together, and now we are leaving together.” However, as NATO’s Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, later remarked [subscription required], once the U.S. had decided to withdraw, “it was hard for other allies to continue without the United States. It was not a realistic option.”

Without the U.S., other Allies would have been unable to either continue the mission in Afghanistan or ensure a more orderly end to it. This reality has led President Macron and others to argue, once again, for strengthening Europe’s defence capabilities in a way that complements NATO, and pursuing “strategic autonomy” in security and other areas.

Additional Resources

Borrell, Josep. “Why European Strategic Autonomy Matters.” High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Vice-President of the European Commission Blog, 3 December 2020.

Garey, Julie. “Chapter 4: September 11, 2001, and the War in Afghanistan.” The US Role in NATO’s Survival After the Cold War. 2020.

Jockel, Joseph T. and Joel J. Sokolsky. Canada in NATO, 1949–2019. 2021

NATO Parliamentary Assembly. Learning the Lessons of NATO’s Engagement in Afghanistan. Resolution, October 2021.

Author: James Lee, Library of Parliament

Categories: International affairs and defence

Tags: , , ,