The war in Afghanistan is notable for two major things: it is the longest war in American history, and it has enjoyed as many accomplishments as it has been beset by disappointments. The lessons learned may take far longer than the war itself…whenever and however it is defined as over.
Coalition Challenges in Afghanistan (Gale Mattox and Stephen Greiner, eds, Stanford University Press) is a contribution to understanding how the complex dimensions of a coalition of up to fifty nations has evolved over the past fifteen years. Given the conflict’s complex equation of actors, motivations, resources, and goals, the book is central to understanding how to measure both success and failure of the mission in Afghanistan.
The book starts by examining the goals of stabilizing a government in Kabul capable of replacing the tyrannical rule of the Taliban with an effective Afghan government. That this ambitious goal could not be accomplished without engaging with the regional and local tribes and their warlords was and has remained extremely difficult for the alliance members to admit. Returning to power those very groups that the Taliban had earlier replaced was complex and contributed to the impression that the overall effort may be self-defeating.
Chapters are then devoted to examining how fifteen individual member as well as nonmember states of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) coalition managed to organize their contributions in Afghanistan while steering through the parameters of their respective domestic politics. Additional chapters deal with Russia, Pakistan, and Japan, as well as NATO, the policy of counterinsurgency, the Afghan government, and major warlords and their impact. The authors look at the experiences of different actors based on their respective sense of purpose in joining the coalition, ties with the U.S., and other rationales for committing troops, money, and resources to their respective part of the ISAF campaign. Each nation’s reasons, limits, and parameters for involvement were also reflected in their conditions for joining and, for many, eventually leaving the coalition.
Gale Mattox offers a particularly interesting insight into the case of Germany, which has been the third-largest contributor to the coalition in Afghanistan virtually since the beginning of the conflict. She argues that the years of German engagement in Afghanistan is a story of Germany struggling to come to grips with its military past as well as its responsibilities in the present. The initial shock of 9/11 created an outpouring of support for the U.S. and Germany was quick to commit to the ISAF effort. Yet over the next few years the role of German forces on the ground were heavily circumscribed by the Parliament. This caused conflicts and tensions in coordinating tactical movements and responsibility, with the result, particularly in the early days of the conflict, that the German command was the object of criticism by other forces who were more directly engaged in the actual fighting.
The original case for German involvement in ISAF was to help with development strategies for the country. Mattox then cites the case of the so-called “Kunduz incident,” in which Germany was involved in a military strike that killed and injured civilians, underlining the military nature of the conflict. The dynamic between furthering development and the need for military security became more apparent, with the result that the public’s initial support for the ISAF engagement began to decline as the number of casualties grew. How that will further evolve remains unclear.
There is no question that the impact of Germany’s presence in Afghanistan will shape the current and important discussion about the parameters of German leadership and responsibility. How that will happen is left open. But one important outcome discussed in the chapter is the emergence of the Bundeswehr (German armed forces) as an increasingly responsible institution for any German participation in future deployments—deployments which meet the German commitment to multilateral engagement. This is reinforced in German assumption of deputy command of the post-2014 Resolute Command in Afghanistan. The soon-to-be released White Paper from the German Ministry of Defense may offer some insights on future planning in this regard.
The final chapter of the book, also written by Mattox, offers a larger perspective on lessons learned for the coalition forces, the many non-governmental organizations involved, decision-making in the individual member states’ domestic processes on deployment of military forces, the impact on resources, and good government practices needed to promote a viable and stable platform for a country like Afghanistan—to name just a few of the ten thoughtful lessons Mattox offers for consideration.
Bottom line: it may be a long time before these lessons are absorbed, digested, and even applied in NATO for future coalition efforts. But there is no question that there will be another opportunity, and indeed necessity, to apply them, whether in Syria, Libya, or other conflicts in the Middle East, Africa, or elsewhere. The world is in too fragile a state not to expect that the politics of the transatlantic alliance and its coalitions will remain both a challenge and a necessity for many years to come.
It could be that the lessons Mattox offers may eventually be tested or retested in Afghanistan itself, not to mention Ukraine and the many other challenges to the transatlantic alliance in the world today. It is not guaranteed that, despite its multi-year effort, the alliance formed to fix Afghanistan will work. Time will tell.