Canada, NATO and Afghanistan: Lessons NOT learned entrap us still today

At the advent of President Biden’s tenure, the International Crisis Group published a briefing entitled Nineteen Conflict Prevention Tips for the Biden Administration (28 January 2021) in which they urged the President to:

discard failed approaches, such as an over-reliance on coercion….

To aid in the crafting of policies “in the service of a more peaceful world”, they offered advice on a range of conflicts and geo-strategic relationships. They began with Afghanistan: Give Peace Talks a Chance, saying:

While peace talks present an opportunity for the U.S. to extricate itself from a decades-old conflict in Afghanistan, they will also pose one of the greatest foreign policy challenges for the Biden administration.

They then made recommendations as to how the Biden administration can support the limited, fragile peace negotiations now underway, and ideally pave the way for a broader process to come.

Their comments brought home to me the jarring realization that Afghanistan, 20 years after the U.S. invasion in October 2001, is still no closer to the only viable option for a sustainable peace — a comprehensive peace process.

Afghanistan is no closer to a sustainable peace than when the USA invaded in October 2001.

That reflection, in turn, brought me back to my involvement in the NGO Afghanistan Pathways to Peace, and to the work I did with that organization, involving both Afghans and Canadians, in promoting a comprehensive peace process.

All of my work was summarized in a presentation I made in 2008 -2009 entitled Back to the “peace” in peacebuilding: an old/new role for Canada, which can be read in its entirety here.

The analysis and recommendations were based on all that I had learned to that point from my many years of involvement in UN peacekeeping and diplomatic peacemaking and, in particular, on all of the lessons the UN had learned, sometimes through very bitter experience, in its long engagement in peacekeeping.

My article distilled lessons the UN had learned in its long experience in peacekeeping.

My UN experience was supplemented by my then several years of engagement in training NATO senior commanders and their staff in working with the UN in stabilization operations, such as that of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.

During all this work, I was haunted by the fact that the US, and NATO writ large, seemed determined to remake every mistake the UN had already made, and learned from.

And this lack of understanding of why the NATO-led stabilization mission was such a failure and, at such high cost, continues to this day, because of the refusal of NATO as a whole, or even most of the individual nations involved, to engage in any sort of meaningful lessons-learned exercise — even though such exercises are fundamental to the way that the military learns from its mistakes.

NATO as a whole and most individual NATO members, including Canada, have never engaged in any meaningful lessons-learned exercise for ISAF in Afghanistan.

I decided it was timely to revisit my analysis and recommendations in the hope that it will give readers a better understanding of why ISAF failed, but also, more importantly, what is necessary for Afghanistan to finally build a sustainable peace.

To repeat, the article is entitled Back to the “peace” in peacebuilding: an old/new role for Canada and can be read in its entirety here.

Please note that it has not been updated since 21 February 2009, but it still rings true today. An alternative title, fitting in 2021, would be:

Canada, NATO and Afghanistan: Lessons NOT learned entrap us today.

Peggy Mason. RI President



Photo credit: DND (ISAF 5, commanded by Gen Rick Hillier)

Tags: Afghanistan Pathways to Peace, comprehensive peace process, International Security Assistance Force (SAF), NATO and Afghanistan, UN comprehensive peacekeeping