NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan is reminiscent of other defeats of this axis against weak countries or the so-called Third World. It may still be difficult for some NATO leaders to admit their strategic failure and military defeat, but as former Afghan President Hamid Karzai emphasized: “Look at the scene. We are in shambles. The country is in conflict. There is immense suffering… Those who came here 20 years ago in the name of fighting extremism and terrorism not only failed to end it but, under their watch, extremism has flourished. That is what I call failure”
The defeat of NATO and the United States against weak countries and small groups with less military capability is not something that has just happened. The US defeat in front of the Vietnamese guerrillas, NATO’s desperation against Cuba, and NATO’s recent defeat on the Afghan battlefield are among the proofs of this claim.
As a military and intelligence analyst, I would like to address the main reasons for this and other defeats of NATO and the United States against competitors with much lower power levels. The reasons for these failures are mainly divided into two categories: psychological reasons and strategic ones.
In the psychological realm, the United States and NATO must be able to persuade three audiences for war, because the legitimacy of their battles is one of the main themes of the propaganda line they promote. The first category is the people of the country they have invaded. This issue, of course, has nothing to do with the humanitarian spirit of the occupying forces, rather than it is not possible for the Western military forces to launch a full-scale war on the Middle East front and destroy all the manpower in the targeted country. The lack of military focus of NATO, especially the United States, is clearly because of emerging new Cold War against its Eastern rivals. The need to strategically maintain hotspots in Eastern Europe to counter Russia and a military presence in the Pacific, Indian Ocean, and Korean Peninsula to protect allies in East Asia has significantly dispersed the Axis military power. Thus, the disproportionate increase in manpower in the Middle East means that NATO is lagging behind its eastern rivals on various fronts.
Accordingly, NATO’s main mission to advance military operations in the Middle East is to mobilize the people of the aggrieved country, in line with its strategic and military interests, to minimize its troop size. The initial advance of coalition forces in the Iraq war in 2003 was largely due to a lack of popular support in defending Saddam’s regime. But the operation, which achieved to its ends in just three weeks, turn the table due to the resistance of small insurgent groups, including al-Qaeda and other armed groups, and turned the conquered country into a swamp for the aggressors. Thus, one of the main reasons for the defeat of the coalition forces and the withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 was due to the weakening of the logic of the presence of the occupying forces in the eyes of Iraqi people.
The second group of the main audience of NATO psychological operations is the international community. The main mission of this front is to control the world’s public opinion and convince the international community, especially the citizens of Western countries, to justify the legitimacy of the war to them. The recent war in Gaza and the acceptance of a unilateral ceasefire by Israel are proof of this claim. Although the military capability and destructive power of the resistance cells in Gaza was lower than in Israel, the death toll on both sides of the conflict is a good indication of the pressure from the international community and the outrage of European and Western citizens from the depth of Israeli atrocities. To the civilians, the regime was forced to withdraw its claims. Israel’s retreat was due to the weakening pressure of world public opinion on the regime’s allies in NATO in its defense.
NATO countries, because of their liberal economy, are generally tax-dependent countries. Thus, they have to convince their citizens, as the third group of audiences, of government spending. The motivation to fight terrorism abroad, after the 9/11 attacks, initially justifying the war on terror and worked as a compensating for the lack of motivation to pay taxes after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But, two decades after that, has diminished over time, while costs, losses and the war casualties became a more prominent image in the domestic public opinion of the occupying countries. Hence the logic of spending taxes and sending the children of the homeland for a fruitless war in the Middle East became meaningless.
Given the above, one of the main reasons for the failure of the NATO alliance in the war in Afghanistan seems to be the rejection of the legitimacy of the war by these three groups of audiences. In other words, the failure of NATO’s extensive psychological operations to present this fruitless war as legit led the people of Afghanistan to not accepting the claims of the United States and NATO about the counter-terrorism as the main goal of the war. (The lack of real advancement of this goal on the battlefield is one of the reasons for the weakening of this idea).
Another factor in the defeat of the United States and NATO in the war against countries with low military capabilities is a series of strategic failures to understand the arena of war. Miscalculations in understanding regional powers, underestimating the strength of guerrilla and ideological forces all lead to misunderstanding of the horizon ahead of the war and thus they getting caught up in an attrition warfare.
A miscalculation in understanding regional powers plagued Israel in various wars with the Axis of Resistance. Clearly ignoring the Islamic Republic of Iran in the Middle East regional policy is one of the strategic mistakes that NATO is accustomed to. NATO countries are accustomed to the greyhound in developing and less developed countries. Ignoring regional and global powers has led the United States to take short-sighted military action, regardless of the region’s political geography. This view generally leads to disaster. The United States and NATO, which interfere in the affairs of countries arbitrarily and without consulting their neighbors, have never take the responsibility for the crises caused by the occupation of weak countries. Western military forces carry out arbitrary retreats and fruitless attacks without a clear plan. While to avert regional security threats, the best actors are the regional actors, and there is generally no need for troublesome foreign interventions.
On the other hand, the power hidden in the ideological armed groups and local resistance is something that will also paralyze skilled soldiers who are unfamiliar with the region. By taking advantage of environmental barriers and using Afghanistan’s mountains and valleys, Taliban forces broke the military superiority of coalition forces and gained a strategic upper hand on the battlefield. A similar military strategy can be found among the guerrillas of South Vietnam. The use of Vietnam’s vast forest cover and the resistance of locals, alongside the lack of military progress, led the United States to cruelly use the Orange Agent. Similar to Afghanistan, where the indiscriminate use of drones against military and civilian targets confirms this claim.
Finally, refer to the history of NATO wars, it can be acknowledged that the Western military is not strategically and psychologically capable of controlling attrition warfare, at least in the Middle East. Therefore, it seems that in order to prevent countless US wars, serious positions must be taken. first of all, in the field of preserving and protecting the cognitive domain of the international community, it must be a harsh backlash from the citizens of these countries in order to demolish the hopes of NATO leaders for an easy war. Secondly, peace must also be understood as a regional concept that can only be achieved through regional cooperation and convergence.