In the new Hoover Institution Press book NATO in the Crucible: Coalition Warfare in Afghanistan, 2001–2014, Deborah L. Hanagan analyzes challenges faced by the international coalition formed in the wake of 9/11 and explains how the alliance maintained cohesion despite them. She examines why NATO succeeded in Afghanistan when history suggests most coalitions fracture under such intense pressure.
The global security landscape faced massive shifts as the Cold War ended and the growing threats posed by transnational terrorism came to a terrible climax on 9/11. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), established after World War II to provide mutual aid to its member nations, shifted too, rallying to assist the United States in securing Afghanistan after the US-led invasion weakened al-Qaeda and dismantled the Taliban.
When NATO assumed command of security operations in Afghanistan in 2003, its stated mission was to support and assist the Afghan transition in developing “a safe and stable environment.” The member nations of the international coalition would conduct reconstruction, development, and governance activities. Violence and combat would be concentrated in limited areas.
Quickly, it became apparent that the reality was more complicated. NATO had a full-blown insurgency on its hands. What many member nations had understood as a peace-building mission had become something far more dangerous: a highly motivated jihadist threat that took form in IED and rocket attacks, suicide bombings, ambushes, and a fatwa ordering the death of all infidels.
And that was just the enemy. Conflicts within NATO posed additional challenges. The alliance brought together a quarter of the world’s nations, each with its own goals and interests, in an effort to stabilize an agrarian country that posed no immediate security threat. As the conflict escalated to a level of violence and uncertainty few had anticipated, the nations experienced bitter disagreements and resentments.
And yet, through it all, NATO stuck together. Hanagan argues that member nations summoned the political will and organizational capacity to cooperate and endure. And they agreed, above all, that failure in Afghanistan—allowing it to become, in the words of one official, “a black hole for terrorism training”—would be catastrophic, both for NATO and for the world.
Deborah L. Hanagan (Col.-ret.), PhD, served as a military intelligence officer and foreign area officer in the US Army. She holds degrees in French military history and war studies and was a National Security Affairs Fellow at the Hoover Institution.