10 · MT 5/2021 Letter from Brussels Caterina Tani Afghanistan: NATO’s Painful Farewell This is an updated, revised and lengthened version of a comment that first appeared on the Mönch Online News Channel (MON) at www.monch.com on 25 August. ‘Right or wrong - leave the country.’ At the extraordinary NATO ministerial, convened on 20 August in the aftermath of the Afghan political and military collapse following withdrawal, the Alliance – in the eye of the storm – decided to focus on the “here, now and soon,” rather than looking backwards. The collapse was a “tragedy,” a worried Secretary- General Jens Stoltenberg stated – repeatedly. But the “main focus” now should be on “getting people out of the country,” in line with the declaration by the 30 allied foreign ministers, he added. Indeed, the withdrawal, which affected approximately 800 NATO per- sonnel, plus thousands of officials from other nations, has proven to be challenging. Not for lack of aircraft – relevant platforms were provided in abundance by the USAF and allies – but, as Stoltenberg said, because it was difficult “to get people – especially Afghans – into the airport process and on the planes,” – either due to friction with the Taliban or for security reasons. These concerns were only exacerbated over the next few days, characterised by the terrorist attacks. Many NATO countries asked for a postponement of the withdrawal, planned for the 31 August, but in vain.. A few days later, some hundreds of Americans and Europeans were still there, with the spectre of triggering potentially explosive scenarios looming large. The second priority espoused by NATO was to try to stabilise the Afghan situation, as far as that may prove to be possible. One proposed approach is to make diplomatic recognition and funding (humanitarian aid excluded) conditional on the new government’s compliance with commitments, such as not letting Afghanistan again become a safe haven, or ‘launching platform’ for terrorists, respecting human rights and gender equality, and in creating a legitimately representative government. Also, if necessary, with the support of neighbouring Pakistan, called upon to persuade its neighbour to keep to its international commitments and to help – together with other nations bordering on Afghanistan – with issues of refugees management, after having harboured terrorists for two decades. Finally, given the storm of criticism, NATO promised a “clear-eyed assessment of NATO’s engagement” from the very beginning: an essential step, as is an understanding of the collapse, to be able to draw critical lessons from it. Simultaneously, NATO reiterated the necessity it has to continue facing its enormous challenges – Russia and China foremost. The extent of this reflection is unknown – but it is unlikely to result in any (potentially disastrous) plea of ‘mea culpa.’ As for when – or if – any comprehensive answers might emerge to the numerous questions raised in recent weeks, who knows? Such questions centre on the decisions both to intervene in Afghanistan and to leave in this manner – causing a potential flood of refugees that spreads enormous concern across Europe – as well as the reasons for the miserable failure of a process of nation-building in which so many had placed their trust. The bitterness of NATO allies – Great Britain above all – at being presented with a fait accompli, without any say in the matter, after spending so much treasure and blood, remains an issue to which there has been no real response. Serious questions remain concerning errors made by US adminis- trations from President Obama onwards, particularly President Trump’s unilateral February 2020 decision to abandon a condition-based with- drawal in favour of a direct agreement with the Taliban, later confirmed by President Biden – perhaps influenced by internal factors, with mid-term elections already on the horizon. Given the Alliance’s decision to become more ‘political’ and to engage in more discussion, enshrined in the NATO 2030 strategy just about two months ago, an answer to the predominant role played by the US in NATO must now be directly addressed. The medium and long-term consequences of withdrawal are impos- sible to predict – which does not give NATO any excuse not to examine its conscience, understand its mistakes and provide at least partial, defensible answers to these questions. Avoiding over-engagement and recalibration of the multiple relationships within the Atlantic Alliance – especially with the EU – will alsol cry out for resolution. There is no guarantee, however, that all this will actually be enough. If a serious rift between Europe and the US within NATO is unlikely, a new cooling in transatlantic relations might be a realistic alternative. Among other things, the Afghan crisis gave fresh impetus to a partly set-aside debate on EU defence, with several countries, once lukewarm regarding the issue, now pushing for it. One could easily object by recalling the modest – to put it mildly – steps forward made by Brussels, despite President Macron’s enthusiasm, during the Trump era. But this time, it is different. The tsunami of emotions generated by the Afghan withdrawal is far more incisive than the – sometimes bombastic – threats of the former US President, and the imminent change in the EU leading country’s leadership could bring about changes. If nothing else, to persuade the US administration to seriously implement a real rebalance of powers within NATO. After graduating cum laude from the Universita degli Studi Roma Tre with a Master’s degree in International Relations – where her thesis won the ‘Premio Luigi Di Rosa’ prize for theses on terrorism – Caterina Tani has worked as a staff member in the European Parliament and as a journalist, writer and observer of European affairs. Based in Brussels, she brings a wealth of institutional experience and a well-developed network to her role as NATO and EU Affairs Correspondent for Mönch.