NATO still looking for 'lessons learned' on Afghanistan

NATO defence ministers engaged in what was undoubtedly a painful (if somewhat perfunctory) soul-searching exercise over Afghanistan in their first full-fledged meeting since the Taliban seized the country last summer.

The alliance is going to consider whether it should ever again attempt missions outside Europe

Civilians are airlifted from Kabul on a Canadian military flight. (Submitted by Mohammad Popal)

NATO defence ministers engaged in what was undoubtedly a painful (if somewhat perfunctory) soul-searching exercise over Afghanistan this week in their first full-fledged meeting since the Taliban seized the country back in the summer.

The nearly two-decade long nation-building venture — which included the deployment of major combat forces outside of the European theatre, the western military alliance's traditional turf — has been the subject of an ongoing "lessons learned" exercise since the summer's tumultuous, deadly evacuation from Kabul.

Some observers wonder, however, how far the institution is willing to go to come to terms with — and perhaps assign blame for — a lost war.

The review reportedly includes consideration of whether the alliance should be willing to take on so-called "out of area missions" — a policy discussion that has profound implications in light of the rise of China and the emphasis the Biden administration in the U.S. puts on containing Beijing's ambitions.

'A tragedy'

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said there's a lot to consider.

"The lessons-learned process has to focus on both what did not work, but also what worked," he said. "Because it is, of course, a tragedy for the Afghan people that [the] Taliban is back. It's heartbreaking for all of us who supported Afghanistan for so many years, but at the same time we should recognize that we actually made significant achievements.

"Our mission was not in vain."

U.S. President Joe Biden and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg greet each other after the NATO summit in Brussels, Belgium, June 14, 2021. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

The alliance remains ready to strike at terrorist groups that are attempting to reconstitute themselves within Afghanistan's borders, Stoltenberg added.

"We prevented Afghanistan from being a safe haven for international terrorists, and prevented any attack against any NATO ally over 20 years," he said. "Now we will stay vigilant and preserve those gains."

Stoltenberg also said that during discussions between NATO defence ministers on Thursday and Friday, the ministers congratulated the U.S. and each other for evacuating 120,000 people — western citizens and vulnerable Afghan nationals — from Kabul.

Taliban fighters from the Fateh Zwak unit, wielding American-supplied weapons, equipment and uniforms, bow in prayer after storming the Kabul International Airport to secure the field and inspect the equipment that was left behind after the U.S. military completed its withdrawal in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images)

The sense of accomplishment stands at odds with the scenes of chaos and horror — including images of desperate Afghans clinging to the wheels of transport planes — that marked the final days of the western mission.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan attended in person and said he has faith in the ongoing review.

"As I said at the NATO defence ministers' meeting, Canada supports the alliance's 'lessons learned' review for Afghanistan to identify where we succeeded, but also where we can improve," Sajjan said in a media statement. "It is critical that this process be thorough and honest. We look forward to the results."

With Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about to announce a new cabinet, the recent NATO conference may have been Harjit Sajjan's last as minister of defence. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

With the Liberal government about to announce a new cabinet, the gathering of ministers could be Sajjan's last official meeting with his counterparts.

Much of the discussion at this week's meeting was dominated by matters more familiar to the alliance's 30 member ministers — and arguably more predictable. They included Russia's recent decision to end cooperation by closing its office at NATO headquarters in Brussels, as well as policy matters such as nuclear deterrence and strategy.

But Afghanistan was NATO's preoccupation for 20 years, seen throughout that time as a test of its will and skill.

Could NATO pull back to Europe?

The rapid collapse of NATO-trained Afghan forces has some wondering whether the alliance should simply stick to Europe and the deterrence of Russia.

It's a notion that reportedly made the rounds during the two days of talks. It would not be a surprising stance for NATO to take, since the alliance has been reluctant in the past to take on so-called "out of area" missions.

Steve Saideman is a NATO expert at Carleton University in Ottawa. He said the alliance deliberately limited its involvement in the 2011 Libyan campaign to air support and shied away from any intervention in Syria.

Saideman said he wonders how deeply the alliance will think about its Afghan failures and whether it will even matter to some of the 30 members.

"To learn lessons, you have to admit making mistakes and you have to find blame," he said.

Canada has not conducted its own comprehensive lessons-learned exercise on the war, mostly because no one wants to admit mistakes were made, Saideman added.


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.