Lessons from Afghanistan

Article by Alexandra Reinhild Berndt

After two decades, NATO members withdrew their troops from Afghanistan. Now, it is time for a critical evaluation. The intervention in Afghanistan started in the context of George W. Bush’s War on Terror after 9/11. The mandate of the mission expanded over time including (1) democratization, (2) state building, and (3) promotion of women’s rights. In this article, I evaluate the extent to which these defined goals have been achieved and what consequences the troop withdrawal has.

The mission in Afghanistan was not only costly, but also bloody: Between 2009 and 2020 almost 111.000 civilians died (Petersmann, 2021). At first, the mission was assumed to be realized within a few years (Petersmann & Werkhäuser, 2020). The states involved in the intervention thus severely underestimated the complexity of the situation and the long-term consequences of the military intervention.

The core goal of the US was to avoid a safe haven for terrorists (Petersmann, 2021). Despite the fact that the US troops successfully pushed back the Taliban, the Taliban still control some parts of the country today (Knipp, 2021). With the help of Pakistan, the Taliban were able to regain militarily strength and to expand their influence (Von Hein, 2021; Petersmann, 2021). There is thus a risk that the Taliban take back control destroying all the efforts of US to push them back (Knipp, 2021). Hillary Clinton also expressed the concern that the troop withdrawal might enhance the risk of a “potential collapse of the Afghan government and a possible takeover by the Taliban” (BBC, 2021).

Over the course of time, the goals of the mission have expanded. The US administration searched for further reasons to justify the intervention at home. In this context, the idea of liberating Afghan women and enhancing their rights served as justification for the mission (Steans, 2008, p. 160). Overall, the women’s rights situation has indeed improved (BPB, 2021). Furthermore, schools have been created and the infrastructure has been expanded (Tagesschau, 2021). However, critics points to the immense destruction of infrastructure and to the numbers of civilian casualties provoked by the war. Furthermore, some critics also stress that Bush’s call for liberating Afghan women from Afghan men with the help of “liberated” (female) US soldiers was a form of gendered orientalism promoting gendered and racial stereotypes (Khaild, 2011, p. 20).

Democratization was another goal defined during the process of the mission. On paper, the situation in Afghanistan looks good: The constitution adopted in 2004 is liberal and progressive (Knipp, 2021). The actual situation, however, differs significantly (Knipp, 2021). The idea to copy the Western democratic model in Afghanistan failed completely (Hasselbach, 2021). The peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban also do not show any signs of progress (Der Spiegel , 2021). The goal of durable peacekeeping was thus unsuccessful.

Moreover, the country is not only politically unstable, but also economically fragile as half of the population suffers from extreme poverty. The US, however, assured that they will provide humanitarian and financial aid in the future (Knipp, 2021). Additionally, NATO confirmed the provision of “training and advice to civilian institutions” organized by the civilian office of NATO in Kabul. (Seligmann, 2021). The effects of this measures remain to be seen.

There are some lessons that may be learned from this intervention: First of all, one cannot simply create a democratic system in another country, secondly, war has its costs (financially, and in terms of human lives), thirdly, increasing the amount of money, troops and personnel might not necessarily have the intended effect, fourthly, peacekeeping and peacebuilding are long-term projects that cannot be realized within a few years, fifthly, it is important to draw lessons from these mistakes for other missions (for example in Mali).


Photo by Andre Klimke published on Unsplash

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