RIGA – NATO became a victim of mission creep in Afghanistan as the international community upped its aims from fighting extremists to rebuilding the conflict-torn country over two decades, the military organization’s civilian leader said Wednesday.
“That broader task proved much more difficult, so we must ensure that our levels of ambition remain realistic,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said after chairing a meeting of alliance foreign ministers in Latvia where a report on lessons learned in Afghanistan was discussed.
NATO took over the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan in 2003, almost two years after a U.S.-led coalition invaded the country to oust the Taliban for harboring Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaida leader who masterminded the Sept. 11 terror attacks and was shot dead in Pakistan in 2011.
The international force helped build up an Afghan army said to be around 300,000-strong, although the army was so riddled with corruption that its real troop numbers were unclear. Whatever its size, the Afghan army withered within days in August in the face of a Taliban offensive.
Stoltenberg said the Afghan security forces “were hampered by corruption, poor leadership, and an inability to sustain their own forces,” despite years of international support. “For the future, we must ensure that NATO training efforts create more self-sustaining forces,” he said.
More than 100,000 people were evacuated from Kabul in late August during the frenzied final days of a U.S. airlift after President Joe Biden said American troops would leave. Thousands of Afghans remained, desperate to escape the uncertainty of Taliban rule.
Referring to the debacle at Kabul Airport, where a bomb attack was launched and desperate Afghans clung to a departing transport plane, Stoltenberg said that “we should explore how to strengthen NATO’s ability to conduct short-notice, large scale non-combatant evacuation efforts.”
The report presented Wednesday required no vote. The job of identifying lessons was handled by NATO’s 30 deputy national envoys, under the lead of Assistant Secretary General for Operations John Manza, along with several experts.
NATO makes decisions unanimously, and Manza said it would be impossible to reach consensus on such a document. Stoltenberg said NATO will make “the main findings” public.
Stoltenberg and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken insisted that NATO had helped prevent the launch of international extremist attacks from Afghan soil for almost two decades.
“For 20 years, NATO made sure that Afghanistan could not again become a safe haven for terrorists who threaten our countries and our people,” Blinken said. “Now, NATO remains fully committed to the fight against terrorism worldwide and we will use all our capabilities to aid in that fight.”
Blinken did not say what lessons the U.S.-led military organization might have learned.
The security effort cost the United States alone $2.3 trillion, and the price in lives includes 2,324 American troops and 1,144 personnel among U.S. allies, according to figures from Brown University. NATO doesn’t keep a record of those who die in its operations.
Those casualty figures are dwarfed by Afghan losses, which include more than 46,000 civilians, about 69,000 members of the national armed forces and police, and over 52,000 opposition fighters.
Lorne Cook reported from Brussels.