Gale A. Mattox, Stephen M. Grenier, eds. Coalition Challenges in Afghanistan: The Politics of Alliance. Stanford: Stanford Security Studies, 2015. 352 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8047-9627-9.
Reviewed by Astri Suhrke (Chr. Michelsen Institute)
Published on H-Diplo (July, 2016)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)
A paradox emerges from this collection of writings on the experiences of the US-led coalition in Afghanistan: NATO emerged unharmed, and arguably stronger, from a mission that failed. The Afghanistan operation, as the authors show, successfully strengthened NATO’s operative capabilities by increasing the ability of diverse members to work together and deepening the ties between the US and its allies, partners, and expectant partners. This was achieved despite the failure of the coalition to meet its main objectives in the field. By 2014, when NATO’s initial combat and “security assistance” operation was replaced by a much smaller training and advice mission, the Taliban were stronger than at any time since 2001. While Afghanistan is no longer a major safe haven for international terrorists, extremist groups, including al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), have a foothold in the eastern and southern parts of the country.
These trends have hardened since 2014. Extremist groups that resort to terror have proliferated internationally even without a sanctuary in Afghanistan. Inside the country, al Qaeda has reestablished training camps. The US military announced in late 2015 that it was surprised to discover two major camps in the southern province of Kandahar (these were promptly destroyed). The Taliban have been steadily on the offensive. The Afghan regular forces have required decisive help from the US air power, special forces, and local militias to hold their ground. The number of civilians killed or injured in 2015 was around 10,000--a record number. Economic growth has slowed dramatically as the war economy imploded after most of the international force, counting nearly 150,000 at one point, were withdrawn. Political tensions in the coalition have added uncertainty about the future and caused new waves of outmigration.
The conclusions of this book, written by one of the co-editors, Gale A. Mattox, acknowledge this state of affairs, although in more guarded terms: “The conflict in Afghanistan required close collaboration for … [NATO] allies and coalition members for an extended period of over thirteen years, the longest war in US history. The end result has proved broadly positive in terms of cooperation but produced mixed results for the alliance generally and particularly the future of Afghanistan” (p. 288). The chapters in the book bear this out.
The alliance gained significant operational practice. Concepts (such as Provincial Reconstruction Teams) were tested out. National contingents of special forces worked together in joint and often prolonged operations for the first time. New structures for collaboration were developed; NATO established a special headquarters to coordinate the various national special forces (NATO Special Operations Headquarters, NSHQ). New structures were also formed in-country for sharing of information among the various military intelligence services. Almost fifty nations sent forces to assist the mission. NATO’s website by the mid-2000s featured a map of Afghanistan almost entirely covered with foreign flags that showed the presence of an ally, partner, or friend. Even Iceland (which has no army) was there, as was El Salvador (whose troops were trained and equipped by the United States).
Even more encouraging, according to Mattox, the caveats that some nations imposed on their operations in Afghanistan were modified over time to suit the general guidelines, mostly defined by the United States. The Afghan experience also encouraged countries like Germany and Japan, which until recently have been extremely reluctant to commit military forces overseas, to start shedding the burden of history. Germany has assumed Deputy Command for the post-2014 NATO mission in Afghanistan; Japan’s role (provision of tanker support) contributed to the ongoing national debate about the country’s self-defense force. “More broadly, a number of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) coalition members outside Europe have become part of the NATO ‘partners across the globe’ initiative” (p. 302). All this has been good for NATO and strengthened the alliance quite independent of the stimulus provided by the crisis in Ukraine. In other words, the operation was a success, but the patient died, as indicated by the metrics of militants’ strength noted above.
There are many reasons why NATO’s mission in Afghanistan achieved so little--or failed, as many would say. Technical and organizational reasons are highlighted in this volume, such as the lack of coordination among the allies, and late and inadequate training of the Afghan regular forces. There were structural issues as well. For a start, and as the book nicely demonstrates, none of the countries that committed to fight with the United States in Afghanistan had any particular interest, or prior involvement, in Afghanistan. They simply wanted to invest in their own national security by demonstrating solidarity with the United Sates or NATO; the geographic location of the investment was incidental. As a result, they had little knowledge or understanding of Afghanistan, and no commitment to stay there any longer than the Americans wished. The United States, for its part, became increasingly torn over the wisdom of fighting a war in Afghanistan that by the end of the decade appeared as a costly military campaign with shifting and mostly unachievable goals.
More fundamental were the internal contradictions of the operation as a whole, generated by the impossible task of fighting a war and building peace at the same time. As the problems inherent in this task became apparent, leading to a mounting insurgency, eroding governmental legitimacy, and growing corruption, the international coalition tried to rectify the situation by sending more troops, more money, and more civilian technical assistance. The result, however, was to sharpen the contradictions. The problems only intensified, as American ambassador Karl Eikenberry spelled out for President Barack Obama in his famous cable of November 6, 2009.
The lessons that NATO as a collective body has drawn from the Afghan venture so far are therefore more ambivalent than the concluding chapter of this book suggests. First, and most obviously, is not to commit the alliance to an intervention that entails a complex and transformative reconstruction cum state-building agenda. Too many patients dying after an operation is not good for the reputation of even the world’s most powerful military alliance. Hence the Libyan intervention in 2011 was a military operation only--swift and short. Yet while successful in immediate military terms, that operation also left the patient badly wounded, if not dying. The various Libyan factions were mostly left to their own devices. The result was violent and chaotic conditions that still prevail.
Given the negative outcomes from both a deep engagement (Afghanistan) and a short surgical intervention (Libya), an outsider might wonder what useful lessons NATO as an alliance is drawing from these experiences. Technical lessons of an intraoperative nature, as this book suggests, do not address the broader and more difficult policy issues of when and how to intervene in “out of area” conflicts. Prudence might suggest steering a middle course between the Afghan and Libyan extremes, as NATO seems to be doing in Mali. Whether this will be the new norm depends, however, above all on the call of the most powerful member of the alliance and its largest European members.
. For a fuller discussion, see my book When More is Less: The International Project in Afghanistan (London: Hurst, 2001).
. For a full text, see http://documents.nytimes.com/eikenberry-s-memos-on-the-strategy-in-afghanistan.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-diplo.
Astri Suhrke. Review of Mattox, Gale A.; Grenier, Stephen M., eds., Coalition Challenges in Afghanistan: The Politics of Alliance.
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