This is part two of an interview by Piero Dal Poz

On the night of July 30th, 2021 the last remaining NATO military soldier left Afghanistan. It was considered the moment that formally ended the American-led intervention in Afghanistan, as the whole world saw the photo that captured the moment. This conflict began in October 2001 and lasted almost twenty years, so long to define a generation. Now the war is over and the Taliban, who ruled the country before, are back to power. It has been said a lot during those agitated moments, but often too much taken by the emotions of the moment. Several months after the end, after letting the steam of the moment blow off, Piero Dal Poz sits down with Dr. Joanna Siekiera to analyse with a clear head the successes and the failures of the NATO mission.

Dr. Siekiera is an international lawyer and a Doctor of Social Sciences in public policy sciences from Poland. She currently works at the Faculty of Law, University of Bergen in Norway on the legal consequences of ocean change and sovereignty of states in Oceania. She worked in the Polish diplomatic missions, the Institute of Cultural Diplomacy in Germany, the School of Humanitarian Law in Russia, the United Nations CIMIC Training School, the French Institute of International and Strategic Affairs, and NATO. She lectured at the University of Wrocław and the War Studies University in Warsaw in Poland, also serving as a legal advisor (LEGAD) during international military exercises. She is the author of over 100 scientific publications in several languages. Dr. Siekiera has been cooperating with the NATO Stability Policing Centre of Excellence since February 2021 as an external subject matter expert (SME) in legal matters. Her areas of expertise are the South Pacific region, Pacific Ocean governance, science diplomacy (ocean diplomacy), and the law of armed conflict (legal advising, NATO legal framework, Central Europe, security in the South Pacific, gender in armed conflict).

Piero Dal Poz is a 3rd year undergraduate student in Philosophy, International Studies and Economics at Ca’ Foscari University Venice. His main areas of expertise are the internal dynamics of the state of Israel and the strategic action of the People’s Republic of China. At the European Student Think Tank is a writer for the Foreign Policy section.

Do you think the cultural differences between the invading forces and the local population should have been taken more in consideration when thinking about the strategy of the whole conflict?

Not only cultural differences, but the entire humanitarian perspective should have been used through the whole mission- so at the stage of planning, during the operation, but also at its termination, when we coin so-called “lesson learned”. Gender and indigenous peoples’ perspectives have also been forgotten or intentionally neglected. Here I shall use the example from a village in Afghanistan. A well had been built in a town by the American-led troops and other contractors. Such a project is understood by the humanitarian aid organisations as a typical project intended “to win hearts and minds” – the local population will, because of this project, see the human face in the foreign armies, not only military features, very often associated with invaders, just like Afghans observed not so long ago when the Soviet Union invaded their country (1979-1989).

But coming back to our example of neglecting the human factor in the mission: A day after drilling the well with a pompous inauguration with representatives of the local authorities (men) and humanitarian workers (mostly men), the well was destroyed. Why? By whom? It was destroyed by the local women themselves, whose sole responsibility was to bring water to their families. Those women were unfortunately not taken into account by either the local authorities or by the Western NGOs. Going to fetch water was the only chance for those women to spend some time outside of their homes, to meet friends, simply speaking just to breathe during the already harsh times of conflict and the lack of stability with the state, not even mentioning the gender role they were given as house carers.

For the last 20 years, the anti-terrorist coalition has conducted activities not only as part of a military mission, but also humanitarian and training activities, including education, also in relation to women and men in the armed forces of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. Thus, we often refer to those two decades as “social loosening”, which came with NATO’s mission to remove the Taliban from power. This intervention indeed allowed for a social shift from the orthodox approach to the religion (Islam), according to which only boys could be educated, and only within religious schools. Unfortunately, some commentators present the total ruin of hard work for the benefit of the human right for the Afghan people being made during 2 decades in a period of just one night.

What do you think about the 2007-2016 EUPOL mission’s outcomes? Did it represent a good way of peacebuilding and state-building?  

As we pointed out before, the mission in Afghanistan was also a humanitarian and training mission, in order to reinforce the indigenous police forces so they could, by the means and tools they were equipped with, including human resources, enforce the legal order – rule of law and protection of human rights. In other words, the Westerners were there not only to give the Afghan public services the fish, but the fishing rod, so they could independently use it after the mission was already over. Here I need to point out that the cease of fire does not terminate the conflict – it might, in legal terms, but in practice, it is sadly often just the beginning of the huge troubles for the local population who is already much weakened after the years or decades of war.

EUPOL Afghanistan was the European Union Police Mission in Afghanistan, held in the years 2007-2016. The mission was aimed at supporting the legal and political reform efforts of the Afghan government through building a civilian police service – made by the well-trained policewomen and policemen, but also other services connected with the law enforcement and securing public order. Therefore, we should not only associate this mission with the Afghan National Police (ANP), but also the Afghan Ministry of Interior being accountable for the public services. EUPOL was the second-largest civilian mission under the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), as it comprised 290 international staff, mostly police officers and rule of law experts, as well as 200 local staff. Over the years, the European Union Police Mission authorised a maximum strength of 400 international staff and 220 local staff.

The EU has undertaken two civilian missions where NATO has been a key actor: EUPOL Afghanistan and EULEX Kosovo. These two operated as part of a larger nation-building effort and were indeed ambitious with high risk for both deployed and Host Nation staff.

Yet, EUPOL did not manage to bring together all European actors. This is exactly what we have said at the very beginning of this interview – that the main weakness of international cooperation lies in fragmentation, divisions, and lack of joint consent. There was in fact no common European framework that could have been offered to Afghan policing.

Finally, as for the policing objectives those were:

  • to improve police communication and command.
  • to introduce intelligence-led policing in order to increase proactivity.
  • to improve criminal investigations.

When it comes to the rule of law, EUPOL was focused on:

  • fighting corruption.
  • improving cooperation between police and judiciary.
  • developing human rights and gender structure policy for both the police and the Ministry of Interior.

As the mission was purely advisory, with no executive power, the trainers, policing, and legal educators could have only wished to be correctly heard and followed. Here, nonetheless, we come back to the issue of cultural differences and the perception of the whole dictionary: what is a state, what is a country, which are the highest values, including legal values, being a core for the legal regime. Not surprisingly, those notions will have far different meanings than we have in Europe. Another criticism was connected to the huge shortages with the Europeans deployed. Everyone could have expected to observe the constant expansion of the contingent due to the enormous Afghan needs. Also, the vast majority of the personnel were deployed in Kabul, which was understood by many, including the most in need – Afghan populace and police forces- as adverse to risk and protecting themselves in a “cosy and safe” environment. This in turn led to many basic logistical and procurement problems, for example, due to conflicts between EU and domestic law.

To sum up, I will say that in this mission we, Europeans, have forgotten the fundamental cultural differences, that the civilian contribution in hostile environments in far different civilizations than ours, far from Europe, is extremely limited.

Do you think the war could have ended differently? Would a different role of European countries in Afghanistan would have changed anything?

Again, it is not about the European countries, but the whole anti-terrorist coalition as one party. For the Afghan population, it was not clearly understood why the foreign armies came – Russians invaded their country a few decades ago and also used law-fare; the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on the Christmas Eve of the year 1979 under the pretext of upholding the Soviet-Afghan Friendship Treaty signed a year before. The treaty from 1978 assumed that the two countries agreed to provide economic and military assistance.

Here I need to quote an American general, whose argumentation captures exactly why we could not win this conflict, due to the wrong, unsuitable, and impossible beginning perception. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley made his full report at the Pentagon on July 21, 2021. He, unsurprisingly, said the infamous words, which clearly portray the wrong-from-the-start attitude that was the whole mission about. The General summarised the operation in Afghanistan as follows: “We helped build a state, but we could not forge a nation”. Yet that was anyhow the aim of the mission for the NATO-led troops. We must constantly repeat (I guess also to ourselves)  that it was “only” a political and military mission, not a “cultural” or “civilisation-forge” mission. Because of that, we could not have expected the warm and friendly welcome of anyone (Afghans) when another multinational contingent was entering their territory with the intention of changing their basis, foundations of the social order.

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