NATO allies are preparing for a future without America’s “forever wars”

Afghanistan wasn’t just America’s 20-year war. It also belonged to US allies.

“This has been above all a catastrophe for the Afghan people. It’s a failure of the Western world and it’s a game changer for international relations,” the European Union’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell told an Italian newspaper Monday, according to the Washington Post.

“Certainly,” he continued, “we Europeans share our part of responsibility. We cannot consider that this was just an American war.”

As President George W. Bush said in October 2001 while announcing airstrikes against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the US had the “collective will of the world” behind its mission in Afghanistan. (Iraq, of course, was a different story.) The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has invoked Article 5 — the common-defense clause — only once in its history, after the 9/11 attacks. More than 51 NATO members and partner countries sent troops to Afghanistan, with a combined 130,000 troops at the deployment’s peak.

NATO’s combat mission ended in 2014, but coalition troops remained to help train and advise Afghan security forces. Even as some countries wound down their military presence in the later years of the war, a total of 1,145 allied troops died in Afghanistan of the approximately 3,500 service members killed.

The United States, starting with Donald Trump, and continuing with Joe Biden, made clear the plan to withdraw from Afghanistan. But the rapid collapse of the Afghan government and the swiftness of the Taliban takeover turned that departure into chaos. The United States looked blundering and inept, and it dragged its allies down with it. Some countries struggled to evacuate their personnel and Afghan associates as the situation around the Kabul airport worsened. All had to reckon with the reality that after 20 years, and lives lost, and billions spent, little was left to show for it.

That has led to recriminations in London and Berlin and Brussels, directed at leaders there, and at the United States. “Was our intelligence really so poor?” former British Prime Minister Theresa May asked in Parliament earlier this month. “Was our understanding of the Afghan government so weak? Was our knowledge on the ground so inadequate? Or did we just think we had to follow the United States and on a wing and a prayer it would be all right on the night?”

Some voices on this side of the Atlantic and the other are simply advocating that US engagement in Afghanistan continue indefinitely. But even among those who are not, there is a genuine frustration at how Afghanistan unraveled, and questions of how closely the US consulted with its coalition allies on its withdrawal timeline.

That has revived a debate that has beset the transatlantic alliance for years, especially during the Donald Trump era: Are the United Kingdom and Europe too dependent on the US for their security? And will the shifting US priorities finally require correcting that imbalance? Katharina Emschermann, deputy director at the Center for International Security at the Hertie School in Berlin, said there is “uncertainty in Europe about the future course of US foreign policy, and what it means for it.”

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“Part of the discord that we’re seeing now is probably also rooted in the sense of unease about how things are going to go on in the future,” Emschermann added.

It is still unlikely that Afghanistan begins a real remaking of NATO. But at the very least, allies may take it as a sign that Joe Biden’s reassurances that “America is back” is not enough.

Allies say the US communicated, but didn’t consult, on Afghanistan

The Trump administration signed a peace deal with the Taliban in February 2020. According to the terms of the deal, US-led NATO forces would depart Afghanistan by May 2021.

Biden, as president, recommitted to the US withdrawal, though in April he extended the final deadline, first to September 11, and later inching it back to Tuesday, August 31. In April, Secretary of State Antony Blinken met in Brussels with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who said NATO would also begin its drawdown. “We went into Afghanistan together, we have adjusted our posture together and we are united in leaving together,” Stoltenberg said.

Togetherness was simply the default. NATO governments didn’t have the capacity to stay in Afghanistan after the US left. Privately, diplomats grumbled that they weren’t fully consulted, or raised doubts about the US plans. But once the US made its decision, the decision was also made for approximately 7,000 non-American NATO forces on the ground.

“It showed, basically, how dependent we really are,” Jana Puglierin, senior policy fellow and head of the Berlin office at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), said of allies like Germany. “Because then it was immediately clear that we needed to follow the American withdrawal, and withdraw, as well.”

Allies took steps to wind down their presence, and as the security situation started deteriorating, some began asking personnel and nationals to leave. But the US and its allies did not fully anticipate (or chose to downplay) the Taliban’s accelerated push through Afghanistan and the collapse of Afghan defenses. That left NATO and European governments also rushing to get their personnel out.

“The immediate feeling around this whole situation is that perhaps there should have been more consultation and more joint planning about how to manage the exit strategy,” said David O’Sullivan, who served as EU ambassador to the United States from 2014 to 2019.

“The feeling is that this all kind of descended into something of a scramble,” he continued, “which is very difficult to manage, which put the European countries in a lot of difficulty — not only to get their own nationals out, but also to get out all the Afghans who are working closely with them, and were clearly at risk.”

Governments like Germany and the United Kingdom faced harsh criticism for their failures to prepare and evacuate their citizens and their Afghan allies. Some UK lawmakers responded by pushing the idea that after 20 years, the US — and Western allies — should have stayed even longer in Afghanistan. “The Biden choice, I thought, was false. It was either total commitment of American forces and a lot more American deaths with a never-ending war, or pulling out,” Owen Paterson, a Conservative British MP, said on the Telegraph’s Chopper’s Politics podcast.

But the prevailing sentiment revolved around the idea that the Biden administration had failed to consult with allies and refused to be flexible in ways that might have lessened the chaos of the withdrawal — though what could have been done differently wasn’t always articulated. “Nobody asked us whether it was a good idea to leave that country in such a quick way,” Johann Wadephul, a deputy caucus leader for Merkel’s Christian Democrats in Germany’s parliament, told Bloomberg Television. “So, the very irritating situation we now have — the chaos we are facing in Kabul — is of course the result of this.”

Even though many NATO governments had already largely scaled back their commitments in Afghanistan, they too inherited the mayhem and perception of failure in the US’s military withdrawal. And with that came the realization that they were limited in the ability to influence the narrative, or the final outcome.

“I think definitely the shock and the optics of how quickly things fell apart play a big part in the scope of the reaction,” said Garret Martin, a senior professional lecturer in the School of International Service at American University.

A sense of impotence, Martin said, has laid bare the extent of allies’ dependence on the United States. “I think that was hard to swallow that once the United States decided that it was over, the game was over.”

Allies’ frustration with the United States revives old insecurities and new political tensions

At a G7 meeting last week, European leaders pushed the United States to extend the August 31 deadline for troop departure. The available days to evacuate nationals and Afghan allies were dwindling, made worse by an unstable security situation that, after the meeting, became even more volatile.

The US didn’t change course. That means people will be left behind; now the United States and its allies are depending on the Taliban to let people continue to leave after August 31. French President Emmanuel Macron has proposed the United Nations designate a “safe zone” in Kabul to allow people to depart. “Will we be able to do it? I cannot guarantee that,” he said in an interview with the French television channel TF1, according to the Washington Post.

All of these machinations from allies in the past week also showed how little control they had over the situation in Afghanistan. Puglierin described it, at least in Germany, as a sense of “helplessness.”

“We realize that we are completely dependent, that it would not even be possible to evacuate our own citizens without the Americans going back in the thousands, without Americans running this military airport,” she said.

The dependency on the United States fuels insecurity about what happens if the country’s domestic interests diverge more profoundly from Europe’s. Since the Obama administration, the United States has made clear it is losing its appetite for forever wars, but the Trump administration’s “America First” policies — and sometimes open hostility to the EU and NATO — accelerated fears that Europe wouldn’t be able to rely on the US.

Biden has said the right things, and has promised allies he will work to rebuild the relationship. But the Afghanistan exit adds to “this realization that maybe some of the things that were attributed to Trump were actually part of something deeper that’s going on in the US on both sides of the political spectrum,” Benjamin Haddad, director of the Europe Center at the Atlantic Council, said.

As the US adjusts its relationship with the world, and its role in it, Europe must adapt, too. This is not to say that all of Europe wants the United States to continue its “forever wars” — and allies have been critical of US overreach, as in Iraq (which also strained relations with allies).

But Europe may feel the effects of the withdrawal from Afghanistan more acutely than the United States.

Geography offers at least one explanation: European leaders don’t want to accept a surge of Afghan immigrants. The memories of the 2015 refugee crisis, with thousands of people fleeing Syria, the Middle East, and Northern Africa by boat to Europe, are still very sharp, as is how the handling of the humanitarian catastrophe destabilized European politics. Political backlash to the arrivals helped give rise to extreme right-wing and nationalist parties across Western Europe. Even though support for some of these parties has waned, upcoming elections in Germany and next year in France have added to the skittishness. Macron recently said France must “anticipate and protect itself from a wave of migrants.”

In Germany, Afghanistan may not dominate the election debate, but it certainly won’t be ignored. The country had about 1,000 troops in Afghanistan, second to the US at the war’s close. Germany’s decision to commit troops to Afghanistan was politically momentous, and became the country’s first real combat mission for German soldiers since World War II. Puglierin, of ECFR, also said that part of selling that mission to the public was selling its humanitarian mission, and building democracy and the Afghan state. That crumbled, and Germans will now need to reckon with that legacy.

That reckoning is also happening in the United Kingdom. More than 450 UK troops died in Afghanistan, with some members of Parliament arguing that the UK never should have left Afghanistan. Patrick Porter, a professor of international security and strategy at the University of Birmingham, said the debate on Afghanistan was mostly about “this age-old question of Britain’s significance as a major power, that’s not a superpower, and where that all fits. Afghanistan is the latest canvas on which that unease is projected.”

That unease is shared across capitals in Europe. It may be directed at the US, but in some ways it’s a deflection — a reality that these countries aren’t as singularly powerful as they want to be. US allies are wondering where they fit in the US’s priorities. “The process of self-reflection, with regard to what went down, is only just beginning,” Emschermann said.

Will Afghanistan shift the transatlantic alliance? It’s complicated.

Afghanistan has opened up new fault lines in NATO, but it likely will not be the thing that fully fractures it.

Experts told me that the military withdrawal added to a growing skepticism of the United States, and its larger commitment to collaboration with allies. “People are unsure how much Trump is in Biden, how much of the Trump phenomenon was part of the United States foreign policy consensus — whether Trump wasn’t so much an outlier, but whether he was representing something bigger,” Puglierin said.

For NATO allies, who’ve built their security around the United States, it is getting harder to ignore the reality that US priorities are shifting. Some of this is seen in explicit foreign policy goals — for example, the US’s focus on China — and some of it is less directly linked, like America’s domestic political polarization.

Afghanistan has laid bare that many allies are reliant on the United States. And that has led to the question of whether Europeans now need to ease themselves off that reliance, and invest in and build their own security. During the Trump era, Macron pushed for a “European army”; Afghanistan is reviving another round of debate along these lines.

Borrell, the EU’s chief diplomat, suggested as much in the interview with the Italian newspaper L’Economia. “The EU must be able to intervene to protect our interests when the Americans don’t want to be involved,” he said.

But even if Europe does begin to rethink its own security, it is unlikely that Afghanistan will unravel the transatlantic relationship entirely. “As for American allies, I think it’s not that they’re no longer there,” O’Sullivan, the former EU ambassador, said. “It’s just that maybe we need to do much more, to demonstrate our own autonomous willingness to defend ourselves, while at the same time wanting to keep the alliance which I think is fundamental to European security architecture.”

And some experts were skeptical that Europe would really take steps to invest or build up its own security, separate from the United States and the transatlantic alliance. “We’ve had these calls a lot,” Martin, of American University, said. “So I think whether that will serve as a wake-up call, I think it remains to be seen.”

Tensions over Afghanistan are raw, but those grievances may not be long-lasting. As the University of Birmingham’s Porter noted, the US said it was going to leave Afghanistan, and it did.

“It’s creating an enormous amount of short-term noise,” Porter said. “It’s helped touch off and really reinvigorate a number of searching debates about foreign policy. But in fact, I think this is one of those instances where there’s less than meets the eye.”