The Forgotten War: NATO’s Legacy in Afghanistan

August 24, 2016 2:22 pm


By Liliana Dragnev

Photo credit: NATO

Abstract: While often overshadowed by numerous other geopolitical challenges, the campaign in Afghanistan carries a significant legacy. In addition to triggering the only historic invocation of NATO’s Article 5, Afghanistan also launched a new era of missions outside of the Euro-Atlantic region that have generated debates about the organization’s future. Furthermore, the livelihoods of millions of Afghan people have been shaped by the war. Since the removal of the Taliban, NATO has worked to provide self-determination to a historically-dominated and oppressed people, with notable successes. Unfortunately, a quickly deteriorating security situation caused by return of the Taliban and emergence of Daesh are threatening to negate the positive progress achieved.

‘[Afghanistan] is the most complex and perhaps the most challenging mission that NATO has ever taken on’.([1]– NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer


Almost fifteen years have passed since the launch of the campaign to remove the Taliban and al-Qaeda from Afghanistan. This move is seen as the official beginning of the Global War on Terror – an ongoing fight that has gained salience in the foreign policy agendas of most countries. The rise of pressing security threats in other regions, though, quickly shifted focus away from the country. In regards not only to media recognition, but also in provision of vital political, military, and financial resources, Afghanistan became a secondary priority. Representative Ike Skelton, former chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, even labeled it ‘the forgotten war’.([2])

However, Afghanistan holds a significant position that must not be overlooked or minimized, particularly with relation to the legacy of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The war acted as a major precedent for the organization in its entry into the new millennium, sparking discussions about the future of collective security. More importantly, this war carries important consequences for the livelihoods of millions of Afghan people whose history was one of domination. The Alliance has tried to return control to people, who have grown to hope for and desire the newfound freedom possible in a post-Taliban Afghanistan. This honorable commitment to assist a country that has earned the moniker ‘the graveyard of empires’ should be recognized.

Unfortunately, new challenges have arisen; a growing security emergency in the form of a Taliban resurgence and Daesh (alternatively, Islamic State) manifestation is throwing the country’s future into uncertain territory that threatens the positive progress made by NATO. The international presence is facing setbacks that may not only put the credibility of NATO at risk, but also once more put the country’s citizens under the type of forceful domination and violent upheaval they have historically faced.

An Unconquerable Land: Afghanistan’s History of Intervention and the Soviet Invasion

The geography of Afghanistan makes is a difficult place to conquer and rule; its mountainous terrain, severe winters, and formidable deserts cause logistical nightmares for those seeking to fight or operate within the country. These conditions have led to the widespread belief that Afghanistan is a place where empires that try to invade die.([3]) Stories of the struggles faced by ancient conquerors perpetuate the conviction. Yet, these ‘hoary stereotypes’ actually stem from a ‘supersimplified version of Afghanistan’s history’.([4]) In fact, some scholars instead label Afghanistan the ‘highway of conquest’, and stress that native self-governance is the exception not the rule throughout its history.([5])

In regards to the country’s contemporary history, the Soviet invasion of the 1980s reinforced the misguided myth. The foreign communist forces did withdrawal after nearly a decade of brutal fighting with the mujahedin opposition, but much of this victory was owed to a Cold War environment that guaranteed American support in anti-USSR campaigns. Financial and military assistance was provided to the mujahedin by the US and Saudi Arabia. Aid administration was charged to the Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), which only distributed to religious factions, with heaviest aid going to the most militant of Islamist commanders. Such outside intervention assisted the people in their ouster of the Soviets, but the triumph came at a heavy price. Entire villages were wiped out and the countryside was devastated. Systematic communist attacks of traditional institutions and elites created a power vacuum, and the ISI’s targeted funding promoted Islamic radicalism left the mujahedin deeply fractured. Against this backdrop, the country plunged further into civil war.([6])

While this is far from an exhaustive account of the incredibly nuanced history of Afghanistan, it serves to show the way in which the country has often unwillingly been a pawn in the geopolitical games of others.

Pashtun Students: The Rise of the Taliban

The post-communist power struggle culminated in a continuation of the familiar pattern of foreign players determining Afghanistan’s control. In Pakistani refugee camps, the ISI funded Islamic schools, madrassas. Milton Bearden, former CIA station chief in Pakistan, explains the implications:

It was in these squalid campus that a generation of young Afghan males would be born into and raised in the strictest fundamentalism of the Deobandi madrassas…It was here that the seeds of the Taliban were sown.([7])

The mostly rural, Pashtun Taliban – meaning ‘students’ – entered Afghanistan in 1994 and swept through the country with support from not only their ethnic group, but also a war-weary population that hoped the group would bring stability.([8])

Unfortunately, the optimism did not last, and the leadership of the Taliban’s Mullah Muhammad Umar began its reign of terror, committing atrocious human rights violations. Brutal physical punishments and executions became the group’s tool for enforcing a strict adherence to an austere form of Islamic sharia that included beard laws and bans on television, music, and dancing. Women’s rights regressed, too, as their education became prohibited and full-body burkas became the law. In this environment, other Islamist fundamentalists like Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri began to see Afghanistan as a new safe haven and eventually moved in as guests. Al Qaeda had found its base of operations for launching its jihad against ‘Jews and Crusaders’.([9])

The Game-Changing Day: Article 5 and New Ground for NATO

September 11, 2001 will forever remain a day of collective memory for our generation. In Al Qaeda-orchestrated terrorist attacks on the United States, nearly 3000 civilians were killed. The deplorable nature of the acts served as a push to overthrow the Taliban regime that refused to extradite an increasingly brazen bin Laden. It also produced a level of global unity that kicked off a new chapter for the international community. The unforgivable actions of Al Qaeda threw NATO into uncharted territory and were a catalyst for it to address the onetime debates on contested details of its collective defense pact.

From its formation in 1949, the aim of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was to follow a then-unique all for one and one for all philosophy that would assure mutual protection to all its parties. Article 5 of the founding treaty became the cornerstone that articulated the pact for mutual assistance and security:

[It] provides that if a NATO Ally is the victim of an armed attack, each and every other member of the Alliance will consider this act of violence as an armed attack against all members and will take the actions it deems necessary to assist the Ally attacked.([10]) [emphasis added]

This unparalleled vow of solidarity had been a vital part of the organization, but one not implemented for the whole of the 20th century. However, the brutal terrorist attacks on American soil left no room for ambiguity.

Less than 24 hours after the attacks, the member countries of NATO banded together and invoked Article 5 for the first time in history, vowing to take action. And action they took. While the main combat mission, Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), was an American one, NATO played a supporting role in accordance with Article 5, launching its Eagle Assist and Active Endeavour operations.([11]) Joined with local anti-Taliban factions, international forces drove the twisted regime from power. This time, the international community did not want to leave behind a power vacuum. They helped establish interim rule to build central government capacity and worked to build up professional national security forces([12]) – in an effort to give the Afghan people control over their own future, a level of self-determination.

The UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was deployed to support the fledgling Afghan government with stabilization and reconstruction. Originally based in Kabul, its mandate was eventually expanded to the whole country, and NATO was officially handed full control of the operation in 2003. This historic mission also marked the first time that the Alliance expanded beyond the Euro-Atlantic region, igniting internal considerations about ‘out of area’ involvement.([13])

Global Expansion?: Debates About NATO’s Future

The terms of engagement for operations beyond the Euro-Atlantic area spawned ‘intra-alliance disputes’ throughout NATO’s history, ones that were extended due to the invocation of Article 5 and ISAF mission.([14]) Despite potential disagreements among member countries, Afghanistan opened the door for NATO expanding its work to an international stage. Since 2001, the Alliance has taken a large departure from its previous missions in the European theater. It has been involved in Iraq, Darfur, Libya, and counter-piracy in the Horn of Africa; provided humanitarian assistance after the Pakistani earthquake; and currently supports the African Union in peacekeeping.([15])

Such sprawling distances add a level of complexity to NATO’s operations, which has led some to argue that the demands of this century’s threats should push the organization to go truly global, and expand membership eligibility beyond the transatlantic sphere to countries that share the core values and interests of the Alliance.([16]) Promoters of this view believe that NATO has become a ‘democratic security community’ that transcends geographic borders. Indeed, the Partnership for Peace, Mediterranean Dialogue, and contact countries initiatives established relationships with a variety of countries.([17]) Nevertheless, should these states be allowed entry into the organization? Or should the geopolitical bond be preserved? While these questions have long plagued NATO, Afghanistan served to expedite their move to the foreground.

Beyond a Military Cause: Civilian Involvement & Capacity-Building

In addition to opening discussions of these existential questions for the organization, the transformations required during the ISAF mission in Afghanistan also reoriented NATO towards a more integrated and holistic approach. The mandate of ISAF was initially to provide security and stabilization to the region – to conduct military operations that would support an organic, national government in ‘exercis[ing] its sovereignty throughout the territory’.([18]) NATO was also meant to establish and train the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) that took complete control of the country’s security in 2014. Due to the diversity of threats in the various regions, however, the Alliance was required to make adjustments in accordance with the demands on the ground. ‘The net result is that NATO is becoming more than a purely military alliance, if indeed it ever was such’.([19])

Reconstruction of a country and establishment of self-rule are not easy tasks; security and military measures can never fully deliver these things. Quickly recognizing this reality, the ISAF teams adopted a ‘comprehensive approach involving security, governance, and development endeavors’.([20]) A civilian component was incorporated into the mission, with civilian personnel working through Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) to assist the government in implementing sustainable and manageable development projects. The role of Senior Civilian Representative (SCR) was established, as well, to ensure that ISAF, the Afghan government, and other international and national organizations coordinate successfully.([21]) This recalibration was vital for NATO.

Afghanistan’s complex history, culture, and geography necessitated a learning-by-doing approach that ‘served as an intensely educational experience that transformed and ultimately strengthened the Alliance’.([22]) Policies and stances that were once thought fixed have become more malleable and adaptable to operational requirements in a remarkable and unprecedented way! Beyond simply assisting in the organization’s endurance and relevance, these integrated approaches have had tangible results on the lives of the Afghan people.

Humanitarian Successes: Strides for the Afghan People

The largest impact of the war in Afghanistan obviously falls upon the millions of people who live in the country; for better or worse, their lives will never be the same. The ISAF mission, from the beginning, sought not to dominate the country and maintain its own control – as so many other foreign powers had previously done – but to instead give control back to the Afghan people. Of course, establishing a democratic government in a country with no modern experience with such rule does not occur overnight. After initial rule by an interim government, elections became a regular occurrence. In 2014, Afghanistan underwent its first peaceful transfer of power in its history when Ashraf Ghani won the presidency, a major marker of democratic consolidation!([23]) Regardless of imperfections and weaknesses that still exist in the bureaucratic system, the Afghan people have at least been given a say in what their country’s future should look like.

There have also been undeniable humanitarian achievements. According to a source wishing to remain anonymous, who lived in the country through Taliban rule and assisted US forces after the invasion: ‘ISAF’s presence in Afghanistan has been very helpful in reconstruction of the country….Infrastructure, education, health care, financial institution, access to information and technology are some of the achievements’ that have come about due to the international mission; ‘Thousands of school[s] and hospitals ha[ve] been built.’([24]) Indeed, nearly eight million children have been enrolled in schools and hospitals are putting priority on improving health. Women’s rights are also vastly changed; girls are getting educated, and some women are finding careers.([25]) These are modest steps, and there is a long way to go, but even these little gains are major victories that would have been unimaginable under Taliban rule. Regrettably, recent developments have brought renewed problems.

The Taliban and Daesh: Security Problems for the Resolute Support Mission

The official end to the ISAF mission occurred in 2014, when full responsibility of security was transferred to the Afghan army and police forces, which currently have a membership of nearly 350,000. On the request of the Afghan government, NATO established a non-combat Resolute Support Mission (RSM) to ensure that the ANSF were not abandoned and continued to receive training, advising, and financial assistance. The nearly 12,000 RSM personnel are also involved in the civilian sector, working towards strengthening financial sustainability and good governance in Afghanistan.([26]) Security has sadly taken a worrisome turn since the 2014 withdrawal, and the non-combat role of the RSM inherently limits the extent to which it can handle this growing problem.

The recent Taliban resurgence is unquestionably the most salient threat at this time. A bloody insurgency by the group turned 2015 into the year with the highest number of recorded casualties since the group’s removal. These onslaughts have culminated in the Taliban’s capture of territory, with at least four districts under their total control. The prospect of continued fighting left President Ghani considering negotiations as a path towards stability. In the past few years, the United States, Pakistan, and China have worked alongside the Afghan government in attempts to begin a peace and reconciliation process with Taliban leaders – who claimed to have had a change of heart. Negotiators wanted a compromise so badly that they allowed the Afghan Constitution to be put up for discussion, despite costs that could carry for civil society.([27]) Such potential concessions are incredibly risky, though, and can bring dangerous consequences, particularly because the Taliban have only demonstrated untrustworthiness and deceit.

In the most recent and brutal escalation of violence, the Taliban staged a massive attack on civilian targets in Kabul on April 19 that led to at least 64 deaths and over 300 wounded.([28]) Such action does not imply a commitment to negotiations. The group’s words also shut the door on compromise, with issued statements calling peace efforts futile until westerners are completely out of the country.([29]) Alongside the RSM, foreign NGOs and firms prove much-needed and desired support to a country struggling to find its footing, making these demands entirely unreasonable. The Kabul suicide attacks seem to have radically shifted the situation on the ground, though, and turned President Ghani away from his previously accommodating position. In an address to Parliament, he dropped past calls for amnesty and called Taliban leaders ‘slavelike’.([30]) While negotiation may still occur in the future, at least the recent treachery has ensured the group will be approached cautiously. Plus, the lessened desire to compromise means that the NATO mission and other foreign groups will maintain their welcome despite Taliban indignation.

Disturbingly, the security situation in Afghanistan is further threatened by the appearance of Daesh. My source spoke of stories of a steady Daesh proliferation into the country since 2015, and President Ghani has actively been raising awareness about their growth. While neither NATO nor the United States want to re-commence official combat missions, this danger is being addressed in a serious manner, including US airstrikes that strategically target the group to assist ANSF missions.([31]) US Army Brigadier General Charles Cleveland, who works with the US forces in the RSM, has explained how such coordinated efforts have significantly decreased the size and geographic range of the force. Yet, he explains that ‘based on past performance, [Daesh has] the ability to catch fire very quickly’ and grow rapidly.([32]) Thus, NATO must ensure that the ANSF remain capable of facing this new challenge – with training Cleveland and other RSM members are committed to continuing.


With such growing security challenges facing the country, there is great fear that the legacy of Afghanistan will be marred by talk of ‘NATO’s final days’ and ‘epithets of decline, dissolution and even death’ if the country backslides.([33]) As scholars Sperling and Webber point out, though, the Alliance is at its most effective when it is challenged, and the ISAF and RSM missions have certainly been challenged. Yet, facing these has forced the Alliance to engage in ‘a ceaseless process of transformation—of structure and organization, of operations, partnerships and memberships’.([34]) In addition to taking action under Article 5 for the first time in its history, NATO’s involvement in Afghanistan helped it become more adaptable and resilient. Debates about the future of collective security have also gained focus.

No one can deny the gravity of the recent Taliban resurgence and growth of Daesh. It is a serious fight that the international community may eventually have to rejoin, but it is currently too early to discern how it will develop. Enough time has passed, however, to be able to see the tangible humanitarian progress: ‘from impressive improvements in health care and infrastructure to targeted development aid and the establishment of new governmental institutions, Afghanistan has embarked on a gradual—albeit imperfect—process of reconstruction since the overthrow of the Taliban’.([35]) NATO’s campaign – one of numerous foreign ventures throughout the country’s history – aimed to give the Afghan people an opportunity to finally have their own Afghanistan, a place where they could create their own natively-driven system and have a say in their own futures. Despite stumbles, that legacy cannot be discounted.

[1] Jennifer Medcalf, Going Global or Going Nowhere?: NATO’s Role in Contemporary International Security, Oxford, Peter Lang, 2008, p. 166.

[2] Ibid., p. 195

[3] Barry Neild, ‘Is Afghanistan Really a “Graveyard of Empires?”’, CNN, 7 December 2009, available at (accessed on 10 April 2016).

[4] Christian Caryl, ‘Bury the Graveyard’, Foreign Policy, 26 July 2010, available at (accessed on April 7, 2016).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Michael Rubin, ‘Who is Responsible for the Taliban?’, Middle East Review of International Affairs, vol. 6, no.1, 2002), pp. 6-7; Christian Caryl, op. cit..

[7] Milton Bearden, ‘Afghanistan, Graveyard of Empires’, Foreign Affairs, vol. 80, no. 6, 2001, p. 22.

[8] Ibid.; Kenneth Katzman, Afghanistan: Post-Taliban Governance, Security, and U.S. Policy, (CSR Report No. RL30588) Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2016, p. 4.

[9] Michael Rubin, op. cit., p. 12; Milton Bearden, op. cit., pp. 22-24.

[10] NATO, ‘Collective Defence – Article 5’, NATO Official Webpage, 22 March 2016, available at (accessed on 5 April 5 2016).

[11] Ibid.

[12] Katzman, op. cit., p. 8.

[13] Mihai P. Carp, ‘NATO in Afghanistan: A Roadmap for Success’, Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, vol. 10, no. 1, 2009, p. 74; James Sperling and Mark Webber, ‘NATO: From Kosovo to Kabul’, International Affairs, vol. 85, no. 3, 2009, pp. 494-95.

[14] James Sperling and Mark Webber, op. cit., pp. 500-01.

[15] NATO, ‘Operations and Missions: Past and Present’, NATO Official Website, 9 November 2015, available at (accessed on 4 April 2016).

[16] Jennifer Medcalf, op. cit., p. 167; Ellen Hallams, ‘NATO at 60: Going Global?’, International Journal, vol. 64, no. 2, 2009, pp. 423-26.

[17] Ellen Hallams, op. cit., p. 425; Zbigniew Brzezinski, ‘An Agenda for NATO: Toward a Global Security Web’, Foreign Affairs, vol. 88, no. 5, 2009, p. 10.

[18] Jennifer Medcalf, op. cit., p. 164.

[19] Alexander Mattelaer, ‘How Afghanistan has Strengthened NATO’, Survival, vol. 53, no. 6, 2011, p. 132.

[20] Mihai Carp, op. cit., p. 75.

[21] Jennifer Medcalf, op. cit., p. 165.

[22] Alexander Mattelaer, op. cit., p. 133.

[23] Kenneth Katzman, op. cit., 8.

[24] Interview with former Afghan MACTEC (Department of Defense contracted organization) employee, 7 April 2016.

[25] Kenneth Katzman, op. cit., p. 59.

[26] NATO, ‘NATO and Afghanistan’, NATO Official Webpage, 8 December 2015, available at (accessed on 5 April 2016).

[27] Vanda Felbab-Brown, ‘Blood and Hope in Afghanistan: A June 2015 Update’, Brookings, 26 May 2015, available at (accessed on 7 April 2016).

[28] Mujib Mashal, ‘Afghan President Demands Pakistan Take Military Action Against Taliban’, The New York Times, 25 April 2016, available at (accessed on 25 April 2016).

[29] Richard Spencer, ‘Afghanistan in “Worst Humanitarian Crisis” since 2001 following NATO Drawdown’, The Telegraph, 24 April 2016, available at (accessed on 26 April 2016).

[30] Mujib Mashal, op. cit..

[31] Vanda Felbab-Brown, op. cit.; Interview with MACTEC employee, 7 April 2016.

[32] Andrew Tilghman, ‘U.S. Scales Back Threat Assessment for ISIS in Afghanistan’, Military Times, 14 April 2016, available at (accessed on 25 April 2016).

[33] James Sperling and Mark Webber, op. cit., p. 510.

[34] Ibid., p. 491, p. 510.

[35] Mihai Carp, op. cit., p. 74.