NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has admitted mistakes given the chaotic scenes at Kabul airport at the end of Western military intervention in Afghanistan. At the same time, he defended the operation after the September 11 attacks 20 years ago. At that time, NATO activated the assistance clause under Article five of the North Atlantic Pact to “protect the US, not Afghanistan,” he said in an interview with the United States. Süddeutsche Zeitung and other leading European media.
The alliance had managed to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorists for 20 years and from planning or carrying out attacks on NATO countries. Al-Qaeda’s terror network has been weakened. That was a “significant success” that had to be preserved. The Taliban will be held accountable if they fail to keep their promises to prevent international terrorist groups from planning or carrying out attacks against allies from Afghanistan.
Recent disagreements between the US and key European allies France, Britain and Germany over the evacuation mission and timetable have not called into question the credibility of the aid pledge, he said. The issue of the deadline had been discussed among the allies. “Everyone sees the need to have as much time as possible to fly as many people as possible out of the country.” This is especially true for those Afghans who have aided NATO forces.
The longer you stay in Kabul, the “greater the risk of a terrorist attack”. This danger is “not theoretical, but very real”, for example through the Afghan branch of the terrorist militia Islamic State (IS). “All allies are aware of this dilemma.” Without “at least the tacit approval of the Taliban” for an extension of the mission, the situation at the airport is extremely dangerous. “I’ve been there many times,” said Stoltenberg, who has headed Allianz for seven years — “it’s surrounded by hills” and therefore vulnerable. “The safest alternative is therefore to fly as many people out of the country as quickly as possible.”
“Even if we extend the deadline, we must be able to meet it”
The biggest challenge now is to get people to fly onto the airport grounds at all. “Even if we extend the deadline, we should be able to get them in, but the area around the airport is under the control of the Taliban, whose checkpoints they have to pass.” However, it will be insisted that after the military evacuation mission is over, people can continue to leave Afghanistan via commercial flights or overland.
It is “in the interest of all parties and also of every Afghan government to have a functioning and safe airport for civilian traffic and emergency flights”. How this should be technically possible and in what time frame, Stoltenberg left unanswered. According to information from German security circles, civilian operation is not possible in the near future because the US military not only secures the site, but also handles the flight operations with its own equipment.
Stoltenberg, who had decided to send soldiers in his previous role as Prime Minister of Norway in 2001, admitted it is “painful to see the developments in Afghanistan and the tragedy for the Afghan people”. It breaks his heart to see the suffering of the people and to know that the successes of the mission, such as access to education for women, are in jeopardy. Afghanistan has fundamentally changed over the past twenty years and that cannot simply be reversed.
NATO must analyze its own role “openly and honestly”
But NATO must learn lessons from the operation. “It is important that every democratic institution analyzes mistakes and its own role openly and honestly.” The decision to use military force is very serious and difficult and does not necessarily lead to the desired results. At the same time, however, the international community has been criticized many times for failing to prevent the massacres in Rwanda or Srebrenica, for example.
NATO must remain able and willing to deploy military assets. Otherwise, the Islamic State terrorist militias in Iraq and Syria would not have been able to stop them. “I still believe it was good to go to Afghanistan 20 years ago,” the NATO Secretary General confirmed. At the time, there was broad political support for it, not only from all allies but also “across the political spectrum”.
Stoltenberg reiterated criticisms of the political and military leadership in Afghanistan. “It is fair to say that after 20 years of major investment in building the Afghan security forces through training, equipment and financial support, we had reason to expect more than they would collapse in a few days.”
According to him, the problem was a lack of leadership. He said he “met Afghan soldiers who defended their country bravely, decisively and professionally against the Taliban”; they are not at fault. Many of them were not paid or cared for, even with ammunition. Corruption in the ranks of the government and senior officers is also considered by independent experts as a reason for the collapse of the military.
Whatever happens in Afghanistan, it is “extremely important that NATO remains a strong alliance”. The allies from North America and Europe must stand together, that was also the clear and unanimous message from last week’s meeting of foreign ministers and discussions with the allies’ heads of state and government. NATO is facing a shift in the global balance of power, a more aggressive Russia and an emerging China. “As long as North America and Europe stand together, we can overcome these challenges,” said Stoltenberg.
That is just as important for Europe as it is for the US. These would increasingly recognize the value of the Allies. For Europe, however, it is clear that the European Union cannot defend the continent. The resources are insufficient for this and NATO countries that are important for security, such as Turkey or, after Brexit, Great Britain, are not in the EU. “Without the transatlantic link, Europe would be weakened,” he warned, but at the same time he was convinced that “we will stand together despite the challenges in Afghanistan.”