The last NATO mission in Afghanistan, ‘collective aspirational thinking’, inspired firm support
This can be understood from an important report by the International Research and Policy Evaluation Department (IOB) of the Ministry of External Affairs. Participating in Resolute Support was the last of the Dutch missions in Afghanistan over the past twenty years. The mission was intended to create a self-reliant Afghan security apparatus, but it was clear early on that it was too ambitious.
The report follows on from previous critical assessments of the work in Afghanistan, and implicitly raises essential questions about the way in which Dutch cabinets ‘sold’ the work to the House of Representatives and the wider public. An image emerges reminiscent of the fairy tale about the emperor’s new clothes – everyone involved pretending to see something that isn’t really there.
Although they actually participated as an expression of solidarity with NATO allies, the Dutch cabinet painted an overly positive picture of a mission where it was clear that the objectives were not being achieved. Other objectives for participation were also presented – combating migration, consolidating human rights and the rule of law on the ground – which were ‘more varied and ambitious’ in relation to the small work contribution of one hundred and sixty people.
It is now known that the Americans are looking for a way out of Afghanistan after the Doha agreement in 2020 and found it without consulting the allies in the spring of 2021. The IOB report does not extend to discharge in the summer of 2022. The Dutch and Afghans who served in the Netherlands will be investigated by a separate commission of inquiry. However, the IOB notes that NATO and the Netherlands’ objective targets were reported very favorably throughout the mission and that these targets were not achieved long before departure.
Crucial to this was that the whole premise of the international coalition in Afghanistan – building a state on the Western model – ‘did not fit the Afghan reality’, and ‘people and government officials felt limited ownership’. “The massive influx of foreign money created a rentier state that fostered patronage networks, nepotism and large-scale corruption.” Additionally, the Taliban have been on the ground since 2014, which should have further dampened high expectations.
And a call for ‘realism’
According to the IOB, all these things were already known at the beginning of 2015, but played a subsidiary role to the desire to show alliance solidarity. Within NATO, in reports from the Cabinet to the House of Representatives, a ‘collective preferred mindset’ emerged, in which NATO staff and participating nations told ‘the same positive story without evidence’.
Are there positive things to report? Yes, since 2018 Dutch and German special forces have made significant progress in training Afghan special forces. However, this has not led to a ‘structural improvement’ in the Afghan Army’s self-confidence. In general, the effectiveness of training efforts in the country was undermined by the short-term deployment of consultants (six months) and a ‘lack of motivation among many Afghan counterparts’.
Non-participation in the NATO mission was ‘never seriously considered’ by the relevant ministries – not an option in the NATO context. No wonder: the Netherlands strives for its own national security, especially by participating in NATO (but also in the EU). It includes political obligations. Like many previous reports on such confirmation missions, the IOB calls for more ‘realism’ about the reasons for re-participation.
The same applies to work progress reports. These mainly contain quantitative data, but lack a qualitative assessment. The Afghan armed forces and police themselves are responsible for providing a lot of data that has resulted in many ‘ghost soldiers’ and ‘ghost police’ figures.
As the US wanted out of Afghanistan, and NATO and member states wanted to present the alliance as a ‘successful and strong’ organization, a ‘collective wish-thinking, echo chamber’ emerged, in which NATO and member state staff shared ‘the same positive continuing narrative’.
The latest IOB report joins a chorus of damning judgments about the Afghanistan missions that have been published elsewhere, but particularly in the United States. Due to Russian aggression against Ukraine, the focus of many Western armed forces has now turned to the collective defense of their own territory, but the ring of instability around the European continent is turning to this type of stabilization mission. For example, opportunity. It will then become clear whether the myriad ‘lessons from Afghanistan’ will play a role in launching new missions.
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