Smaller Allies Matter: Afghanistan Offers Hard Lessons For Ukraine's Future
Despite controversies at home, Nordic countries were heavily involved in the NATO-led war in Afghanistan. As the Ukraine war grinds on, lessons from that conflict are more relevant than ever.
HELSINKI — In May 2021, the Taliban took back power in Afghanistan after 20 years of international presence, astronomical sums of development aid and casualties on all warring sides.
As Kabul fell, a chaotic evacuation prompted comparisons to the fall of Saigon — and most of the attention was on the U.S., which had led the original war to unseat the Taliban after 9/11 and remained by far the largest foreign force on the ground. Yet, the fall of Kabul was also a tumultuous and troubling experience for a number of other smaller foreign countries who had been presented for years in Afghanistan.
In an interview at the time, Antti Kaikkonen, the Finnish Minister of Defense, tried to explain what went wrong during the evacuation.
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“Originally we anticipated that the smaller countries would withdraw before the Americans. Then it became clear that getting people to the airport had become more difficult," Kaikkonen said. "So we decided last night to bring home our last soldiers who were helping with the evacuation.”
During the 20-year-long Afghan war, the foreign troop presence included many countries:Finland committed around 2,500 soldiers,Sweden 8,000,Denmark 12,000 and Norway 9,000. And in the nearly two years since the end of the war, Finland,Belgium and theNetherlands have commissioned investigations into their engagements in Afghanistan.
As the number of fragile or failed states around the world increases, it’s important to understand how to best organize international development aid and the security of such countries. Twenty years of international engagement in Afghanistan offers valuable lessons.
A factor that motivated many countries to join the war efforts was a sense of international legitimacy of theBonn agreement in 2001, which established a roadmap for reconstructing Afghanistan, and the subsequent UN resolutions that paved the way for the following military missions.
Improving relations with NATO
Especially for small and medium-sized countries, the question of international legitimacy is essential as it is in their interest to promote a rules-based system for managing international relations.
Many smaller countries were also motivated by “doing good,” by promoting democracy, contributing to nation-building, human rights and particularly the rights of women and girls. And they did. However, much international aid was allocated to the Afghan state instead of, for instance, NGOs working on the ground which fueled corruption in the country.
The Nordics saw their involvement as a possibility to build on their reputation as international partners.
Distributing the aid evenly over all of the country’s territory was also challenging due to security concerns.
In addition to “doing good,” many smaller countries, including the four Nordics, saw their involvement as a possibility to build on their reputation as international partners.
Particularly Finland and Sweden wanted to strengthen ties with the United States and NATO, which, according to a Finnish expert interviewed by researchers fromFinnish Institute of International Affair (FIIA) make Finland “NATO-compatible”.
“I asked this from guys working at the defense forces ,and they told me this was a way to achieve a NATO-level that we did not have in the 1990's," said the expert cited in a report by FIIA. "This (motivation) was never expressed directly but it was a hidden objective.”
If legitimacy from the UN was one reason for continued engagement in Afghanistan, so was the comprehensive nature of the involvement.
Combining nation-building, development cooperation and military engagement made it easier for decision-makers and voters to accept that the involvement would have been limited to defeating the Taliban or participation in “the war on terror”.
Paradoxically, this comprehensive approach ended up being one reason why many countries felt that the missions lacked clear goals and mixed up civilian and military activities.
At times, humanitarian efforts were hindered by the lack of basic security. So it could have been advantageous to first focus on creating a basic level of security and then putting a heavier emphasis on the humanitarian and state-building levels.
Lack of criticism
During the course of the war and especially a decade after the international operation began, criticism increased, especially in Belgium and the Netherlands.
As a result, Belgium cut its participating soldiers by half, while the Netherlandspulled out of the military operation after a government crisis and collapse over the issue, instigated by the Dutch Labour Party.
While in government, the Norwegian socialist left was also able to oppose some requests for more troops to be sent between 2007 and 2009. But despite criticism, they did not completely pull the country out of Afghanistan.
In other countries, criticism of the Afghan war seems to have been limited to certain left-leaning parties who were ultimately unable to have a greater impact.
Something that also hindered criticism among the upper echelons of the military included worries about professional development. So members of the military felt obliged to adorn what happened on the ground in official reports.
Lessons for the future
As a result of participating in the Afghan war, some countries gained an understanding of how the US operates. Others got international recognition and lessons learned on how to operate in fragile environments. What’s more, many efforts were taken in order to promote democracy and human rights and support Afghan state-building, even though the results are less flattering.
For the international community not to repeat the same mistakes, be it in Ukraine or any other failed or fragile state that has just experienced an armed conflict, there are many lessons that can be learned from the war in Afghanistan.
Small countries should set clear and long-term goals for what they want to achieve for the country receiving aid or support of any kind. And these should override any interest regarding a nation's "branding" or garnishing a reputation as credible partners in the eyes of third parties.
This will be especially important for Ukraine, where many countries have united to confront a mutual enemy, but where enthusiasm for post-conflict humanitarian missions may be less evident.