In February, President Biden declared that he would “repair our alliances and engage with the world once again.” Seven months later, his bungled Afghanistan pullout has left our alliances bruised and battered and the president’s credibility abroad about as believable as Taliban promises to respect women.
Repairing the damage will not be easy. The sudden withdrawal showed callous disregard for our allies. This was compounded by the administration’s pollyannaish response to the international deluge of criticism that followed.
The administration fails to comprehend the ownership stake which many European allies retained in a secure and democratic Afghanistan. The Germans, for example, deployed 150,000 soldiers to Afghanistan from 2002- 2021, many for repeat tours. Berlin’s decision to join the U.S.-led effort was not easy. For historical reasons, Germany is extremely cautious about overseas military deployments, and getting the mission extended year over year was tortuous and politically taxing.
Yet the Germans and other allies stood with the U.S. year over year. Last year, NATO’s Resolute Support (RS) mission to train and equip the Afghan National Security Forces counted 16,000 troops from 38 allies and partner nations.
Yet Biden decided to pull all U.S. forces from Afghanistan unilaterally, leaving allies—many of whom had recently committed additional troops to RS at the behest of the U.S.—feeling as though the rug had been pulled out from under them.
Some allies, such as Italy, Turkey and the United Kingdom, reportedly sought to sustain a presence in the country but were unable without U.S. support, in particular American air support. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson tried desperately to find out what the U.S. was doing, but the White House ignored his calls for 36 hours. If the administration can’t be bothered to talk with the British, something deeply dysfunctional is happening.
Biden’s precipitate action created a crush of desperation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, leaving Europeans stranded and allies like France and the UK resorting to dangerous, clandestine rescues of their own citizens from the streets of Kabul.
Now, the Taliban are back in charge and flush with billions in abandoned western equipment and weapons. Afghanistan will soon be a haven for transnational terrorists once more. Even Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledges, “you could see a resurgence of terrorism coming out of that general region within 12, 24, 36 months.”
The allied reaction has been scathing. Armin Laschet, leader of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union, called the Afghanistan withdrawal “the greatest debacle that NATO has seen since its foundation.”
Calling it “the biggest foreign policy disaster since Suez,” Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the UK’s Foreign Affairs Committee added, “We need to think again about how we handle friends, who matters and how we defend our interests.”
Said German Chancellor Angela Merkel: “For those who believed in democracy and freedom, especially for women, these are bitter events.”
Europe’s disillusionment and anger with Biden and the U.S. is understandable. They remember how President Obama’s Iraq withdrawal led to a flood of refugees, the rise of ISIS and years of terror attacks. They are bracing for a repeat.
Last week, the EU began quickly drawing up plans to boost aid to neighboring Iran and Pakistan in hopes of holding back the tide of refugees.
And what of NATO? Rotting credibility may lead adversaries to wonder whether an attack against the NATO alliance would be met with full U.S. resolve and commitment. In some corners of Europe, the inability to sustain an independent European force in Afghanistan is already leading to renewed calls for an autonomous EU military.
Staunching the damage requires a sustained effort to get beyond trite speeches and show that our alliances matter. The Biden administration should reverse its requested defense cuts, which just further erode U.S. credibility.
Want to let Putin know you’re serious? Establish a permanent presence in eastern Europe. While you’re at it, invest in desperately needed Arctic capabilities. Want to improve NATO? Guide it back towards basics, collective defense of the member states. Unleash the power of the market through the Three Seas Initiative to help infrastructure blossom in eastern Europe, while drowning out Russian and Chinese efforts to make inroads.
These are just a few of the many steps that should be taken to restore our allies’ faith in us. The point is that the U.S. needs to shore up its European alliances. It has tools to do so. Now it just needs to find the will the do it, and to stick with it.
Long after President Biden has left office, his Afghan debacle will haunt future presidents and prime ministers alike. Afghanistan will cast a long shadow on transatlantic security; it’ll take some time to be undone.
This piece originally appeared in The Hill on 09/09/2021