Q&A

NATO Chief on Afghan Legacy: ‘Have To Ask Some Difficult Questions’

Jens Stoltenberg weighs in on AUKUS, Zapad, and the fate of Afghanistan after 20 years of bitter toil.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg speaks during a press conference.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg speaks during a press conference following a virtual meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels on Feb. 18. Virginia Mayo/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said one of the main lessons the NATO alliance should take away from its two-decade-long mission in Afghanistan is it needs to be “ready to use military force again if we are attacked, to fight international terrorism,” even as he conceded the alliance needed to address “difficult questions” about the trajectory of the war.

In an interview with Foreign Policy during his visit to the United Nations General Assembly, Stoltenberg addressed the recent dispute between the United States, United Kingdom, and France over an Australian submarine deal, saying the United States shouldn’t have to choose between building ties with its allies in the Pacific or the Atlantic, though he stopped short of taking sides on the diplomatic rift.

He also addressed one of Russia’s largest military exercises since the end of the Cold War on its western border with NATO, the Zapad 2021 exercise centered around Belarus—with an eye on Ukraine.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said one of the main lessons the NATO alliance should take away from its two-decade-long mission in Afghanistan is it needs to be “ready to use military force again if we are attacked, to fight international terrorism,” even as he conceded the alliance needed to address “difficult questions” about the trajectory of the war.

In an interview with Foreign Policy during his visit to the United Nations General Assembly, Stoltenberg addressed the recent dispute between the United States, United Kingdom, and France over an Australian submarine deal, saying the United States shouldn’t have to choose between building ties with its allies in the Pacific or the Atlantic, though he stopped short of taking sides on the diplomatic rift.

He also addressed one of Russia’s largest military exercises since the end of the Cold War on its western border with NATO, the Zapad 2021 exercise centered around Belarus—with an eye on Ukraine.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Foreign Policy: How much damage do you think this latest dispute between France and the United States and United Kingdom has created in NATO? Is the damage repairable?

Jens Stoltenberg: Im absolutely confident that those allies involved will find a way forward and that this will not undermine or weaken the [alliance] because it is in the interest of European allies and our North American allies to stand together. It is in our national security interests. A strong NATO is good for Europe, but it is also good for the United States.

There have been disagreements before. We have 30 allies. Of course sometimes there are disagreements, but history has taught us that our NATO allies see the value of standing together.

[U.S.] President [Joe] Biden is personally very committed to NATO. He knows NATO very well, and he has demonstrated a real will to rebuild partnerships and alliances. Theres no contradiction between rebuilding and strengthening NATO and, at the same time, building alliances and partnerships in the Asia-Pacific. But it’s possible to do both at the same time. And also NATO has also decided that we should work more closely with the countries in the Asia-Pacific.

FP: Let’s turn to Afghanistan. Twenty years, $2 trillion spent, and it ends in a Taliban victory. U.S. lawmakers want an inquest. Should NATO do the same?

JS: We have to ask some difficult questions. Of course we needed to be clear and honest about the lessons learned from Afghanistan.

At the same time, it is important for me to state very clearly that it was not in vain, the sacrifices we made. We went into Afghanistan to prevent it being a safe haven for international terrorists. For 20 years, there has been no terrorist attack against a NATO ally … organized or planned from Afghanistan. Our military presence has also helped in the broader international community, the United Nations, the European Union, to support social and economic progress in Afghanistan. Some of this is very difficult to reverse.

What [is happening] in Afghanistan now is a tragedy for Afghans, especially for women. But that doesnt mean that the effort was in vain. We achieved a lot in the fight against international terrorism, and we helped to support social and economic progress.

FP: Did NATO make any major mistakes or miscalculations during its long mission in Afghanistan? Are there any lessons learned you’d like to take away?

JS: Its a bit early to preempt the conclusions of a lessons-learned process, but I think its clear that we need to be ready to use military force again if we are attacked to fight international terrorism, as we did after the terrorist attacks on the United States. I was prime minister of Norway back in 2001, and all allies, all of us, supported the use of military force against al Qaeda terrorists in Afghanistan. So, one lesson is that we need to be able to use force when needed again. And, of course, the use of force will always be the last resort.

The second lesson learned is that we once again have been reminded of the fact that it is easier to start a war than to end a war. At no juncture in Afghanistan was it easy to leave. We were always faced with hard and difficult dilemmas, as we were this summer when allies finally decided to end our military presence in Afghanistan.

There were never any easy options in Afghanistan, never any risk-free decisions, but we made significant achievements in the fight against terrorism, supporting education [and] social and economic progress. If needed, we need to be able to use force again, but at the same time, we need to also fully understand that its often easier to start than to end a military mission.

Another [lesson] is that prevention is better than intervention. The more we can do by training local forces, building local capacities, supporting the state, leading them to fight terrorism themselves in their own country, the better. Because [deploying] troops and starting combat operations is never an easy option, even though sometimes it is necessary.

FP: How concerned are you about Afghanistan’s brewing humanitarian and refugee crisis? Will Afghanistan become a safe haven for terrorist groups again?

JS: We will continue our efforts to prevent Afghanistan once again becoming a launch pad for terrorist groups. Part of our holding the Taliban accountable for what they have promised was that Afghanistan should not be a country where terrorist groups could operate freely. We will use the leverage we have—economic, political, diplomatic—on the Taliban to hold them accountable for that promise.

At the same time, NATO retains the capabilities to strike terrorist groups from a long distance over the horizon. NATO allies, especially the United States, have demonstrated before that they can strike terrorist groups without having thousands of troops on the ground.

FP: Let’s turn to Russia, which recently organized the largest military exercise [called Zapad 2021] near NATO’s borders in four decades. Does this exercise pose a threat to NATO?

JS: We dont see any imminent threat to NATO allies. At the same time, of course, we’re monitoring these big Russian military exercises, and we continue to call on Russia to be transparent and adhere to the agreed [upon] rules for transparency and notification of military exercises.

Its part of a pattern of Russian military buildup but also a willingness from Russia to use military force as we saw in Georgia in 2008 and in Ukraine in 2014, when Crimea was illegally annexed, and the continued effort of Russia to destabilize eastern Ukraine.

NATO has responded to this pattern of Russian behavior by implementing its reinforcement of collective defenses since the Cold War. We have tripled the size of the NATO Response Force. We have battle groups for the first time in our history to use them for deterrence, and all allies are now investing more in defense.

FP: Much of Zapad was centered in Belarus, where Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko is having his own showdown with the West. Are you worried Russia appears to be expanding its military footprint in Belarus?

JS: It’s a pattern we have seen where Russia is taking more and more control over countries in its neighborhood, or at least trying to do that, by partly controlling parts of Georgia, parts of Ukraine. It aims to try to establish some kind of sphere of influence, and yes, now also we’re seeing more and more Russian presence in Belarus.

NATO continues to closely monitor the situation on the Russian border. Belarus is also putting migratory pressure on our allies Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland, where actually Belarus is using the migration as a hybrid warfare tool against its neighbors. And it is absolutely unacceptable.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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