Later this year, the NATO-led combat mission in Afghanistan comes to an end. This won’t mean the complete withdrawal of foreign troops from the country, however. The newly-elected Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani, this week signed a bilateral security deal allowing 10’000 US military personnel to remain until 2016. Many analysts warn that a complete withdrawal of foreign troops would leave a dangerous power vacuum and Afghanistan, like Iraq, could risk spiraling into civil war.

In 2007, Ashraf Ghani wrote an article for our sister policy journal, Europe’s World. He complained about the “absence of serious investment in the police, the slow pace of the expansion of the national army, the continued impunity of strongmen accused of violation of human rights, and the weakness and corruption of the judiciary”. He also offered a series of lessons for Afghanistan and its international partners from the first six years of the NATO-led operation in Afghanistan.

First, he applauded the way the transition to democracy had been handled, arguing that the process was successful “because the goal was clearly articulated”. President Ghani’s recent election represents the first peaceful, democratic transition of power in Afghanistan’s history, though accusations of widespread electoral fraud have undermined this achievement.

Second, Ghani is also positive about the various national investment programmes conducted with Afghanistan’s international partners, including the European Commission, ranging from telecoms to rural development. He argued that these programmes have helped to foster a sense of tangible progress and create stakeholders in the process of governance.

Third, he criticised the “business practices of the UN and some other partners”, arguing that they had effectively created parallel organisations to the government and inspired a loss of trust in the “accountability and transparency of the aid system”.

Fourth, he argued that too much foreign aid to Afghanistan was “wasteful” and there hadn’t been enough investment in higher education. For this reason, young Afghans were given “no credible mechanism of upward social mobility and therefore no strong sense of ownership of the development process”.

Fifth, he suggested that the NATO policy of trying to eradicate opium crops was “ill-advised” and “probably an important factor in creating the alliance between the drugs and terror networks and therefore making corruption in the legal and security organs a national disease”. Indeed, 2013 was apparently a bumper year for Afghan drug lords, with opium cultivation reaching record levels.

Sixth, and (says Ghani) most important of all, there was not enough unity of purpose from Afghanistan’s international partners. He paints a picture of competing and “fragmented national and international” interests, made worse by institutional bottlenecks and bureaucracy.

Are these the lessons that Afghanistan’s international partners should have learned since 2007? If so, have they learned them properly?

Earlier this year, we spoke to Alexander Vershbow, Deputy Secretary General of NATO, and asked him to respond to a video question from Gary on NATO lessons learned in Afghanistan. One of the key lessons learned, Vershbow argues, was the importance of building up the capacity of Afghan security forces to operate independently:

“We learned that we didn’t pay enough attention to the ultimate goal of any counter-insurgency, which is to build the capacity of the local authorities to handle their own security. Foreigners can’t impose peace or democracy. Ultimately, those have to be built from inside.”

We also spoke to General Philip M. Breedlove, a four-star general in the US Air Force who currently serves as the Commander of US European Command as well as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe.

We had a question from Kieran asking how Afghanistan’s neighbours are preparing for the drawdown of NATO troops from the country. General Breedlove said he couldn’t speak for Afghanistan’s neighbours, but reiterated that NATO’s overriding goal was capacity-building for the Afghan security forces.

What lessons should Europe draw from the experience of intervention in Afghanistan? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policy-makers and experts for their reactions.

IMAGE CREDITS: CC / Flickr – US Army

15 comments Post a commentcomment

What do YOU think?

  1. avatar
    Nando Aidos

    Lessons to be drawn:
    1 – Don’t follow foolish objectives, especially when invented by others,
    2 – Wars suffer from the same “central planning” problems as did the Soviets,
    3 – Military interventions only benefit weapons manufacturers,
    4 – Weapons manufacturers are the rich world “war lords”,
    5 – Stop killing people and being killed,
    6 – Armies do not win wars or friends, or solve problems,
    7 – Don’t pretend one can solve other people’s problems,
    8 – Get the armies out of there, and
    9 – Let the people solve their own problems!
    10 – … let me think about the 10th lesson…

  2. avatar
    Paul X

    You will never change a culture with an army……….Let these people live in their own corrupt, undemocratic squalor and strengthen our borders to keep them out

  3. avatar
    Jaume Roqueta

    the lessons we learned several centuries ago… the best way to make someone richer is kill other people and take theri lands and goods!…

  4. avatar
    James McManama

    The best lesson from Afghanistan (and Iraq, Syria, Libya, etc.) is that foreign intervention comes with a high price. Of course, non-intervention also comes with a price tag, and sometimes the cost of doing nothing can be worse than even a bungled intervention.

  5. avatar

    Ah ha ha ha ha ha ha ha, are you people kidding, Europe and especially America have learnt virtually nothing from the Afghanistan war, they never have, the former colonial powers of Europe which were powerfull then are still powerfull today, and just as they did to less powerfull peoples and nations back then they also are doing today, ok not with Slavery in Chains but certainly with other forms of subjugation, influence and use of power, e.g they removed Sadam and installed a guy they had been paying for years before that, and the same thing goes for Afghanistan and just about anywhere else that they interfere with, and yes we are told time and time again that the world actually needs the wars and coup d’etas, we are told that democratically elected leaders are dictators whilst undemocratic leaders are freedom fighters and great friends of the west who we can work with, we must understand that any leader that the west cannot controll especially if his nation is a second or third world nation this is a leader that they want gone, they want to reconfigure his government, maybe he will have a plane crash, or maybe if it is a muslim country there will be Jihadists that start making war in his country and magically the western media will choose not to call them terrorists but instead call them rebels and freedom fighters, maybe this leader will be offered riches and power and some succomb to the offers and so they get to continue to play leader but ofcourse with invisible strings attached to their body, and from time to time they have to dance to the tune of the USA and Europe, and it has become so perverse that some leaders simply choose to be USA and Europe friendly to the detriment of their own nations and peoples even without threats or pressure, just look at the behaviour of Central & South American & Caribbean leaders, dont get me wrong of course I would like every leader to look out for the interests of the USA and Europe but the job of a leader is to lead his country and to look out for its interests first and not to kiss ass of more powerfull nations and unions of nations, ofcourse one must lead without walking over people, this goes for small nations just as big ones, except that big powerful nations like the USA and the EU countries dont seem to have learnt this, or they know this principle very well but think it only aplies to smaller & weaker nations. They know that they can get away with criminality like Guantanamo, they know that they can bomb a school full of children to get one terrorist and they can get away with that, they know that they can invade a country for something that they had to have known wasnt there and then not find it and say OOPPPS and they face no consequences of a legal nature, THEY KNOW THIS! The only lesson they learnt is that they are immune from prosecution but then again they already knew that before they went and played war so it might be wiser to call it a reinforcing of a already learnt fact rather than to call it learning a lesson. Just writing this pisses me off, the problem is that it is true, that is the problem! But I will tell you this, the people in America and the European countries did learn something, they learnt to never trust their politicians blindly, they learnt no tto trust Government blindly, they learnt that Governments lie to support agendas, they learnt that war i sugly and has real consequences, they learnt that the world is not the way that they were educated to believe by schools, the media and the Government.

  6. avatar
    Gregorio Boretti

    That democracy can’t be exported invading a country, massacring its people and stealing its natural resources

  7. avatar

    Have you ever played Whac-A-Mole ? It’s about the same with Afghanistan. You hit a head and other rise up from another hole. Otherwise Afghanistan outlived several empires, and didn’t show signs of exhaustion. From a pragmatic point of view, it looks like we (Grand Coalition) just mess with wrong kind of people. Honestly, it would take hundreds of years of military presence and trillions of $ and there are still no guarantees that afghans will follow in the right path. In the meantime ISIS is ravaging Iraq and Syria and Russia swallowed Crimea. Are we ready for a non symmetrical kind of war ?

  8. avatar
    EU reform- proactive

    Harry Houdini’s magic! Interesting what not only Europe might have learned from Afghanistan, but also what some European citizen can learn from posting irritating comments in this regard. Certainly considered “of topic” and vanished into the crisp Afghan snowy mountain air- or is it a dustbin?

    Still confused & unknown to me what lesson Europe has learned from Afghanistan- I have learned something peculiar!
    What are the fitting ancient commandments called again?

    • avatar

      Well if those morons get killed over there it sbetter for all of us isn t it.Simple as that^^
      For the unlikely case that they return you could inprison them,becuase they fougth in a foreign militery organization

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