America’s European Allies Criticize U.S. Afghan Withdrawal

U.S. President Joe Biden announced in April that the United States would end its military operations in Afghanistan by September 11, twenty years after the horrific terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people After the attacks, the United States, with the help of its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies, invaded Afghanistan to “deal with the folks [al-Qaeda and the Taliban] who attacked us on 9/11.” Very quickly, the United States was able drive the Taliban, who provided sanctuary for al-Qaeda, the group responsible for the horrific attacks, from power. The Taliban retreated to Pakistan, where they regrouped.

Over the next two decades, the United States’ aim in Afghanistan shifted from one of counterterrorism to nation-building. This change is exactly what President Biden took issue with. “We did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build,” he emphatically stated in a speech on July 8, confirming that fighting this war indefinitely was no longer in the United States’ interest. About a month after his announcement, as U.S. and allied troops were withdrawing from Afghanistan, the Taliban resurged, pummeling the Afghan military and security forces and causing the Afghan government to collapse. The abrupt withdrawal caused America’s European allies to question if Biden’s promise to restore America’s alliances and U.S. credibility, after four years of the Trump administration’s political and diplomatic mismanagement, were all for nothing.

The Security Side

Throughout the past few weeks, the United States’ European allies offered unprecedented condemnation on the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan. For one, European leaders, especially those in Germany, fear a mass exodus of Afghan refugees headed toward Europe. As a result of the Taliban takeover, thousands of refugees fled the country. This new potential wave of Afghan refugees is reminiscent of the migrant crisis in 2015, which saw refugees, primarily from Syria, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East and North Africa, make the dangerous voyage to claim asylum in Europe. European leaders also worry that a new surge of refugees will serve as a catalyst for the anti-immigrant far right and populist parties that have infected European politics for the last several years to become more prominent. Moreover, another concern for European leaders is the return of terrorism to Central Asia, which Western countries have worked to prevent over the past two decades now that the West will no longer maintain a significant presence in the region.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

European allies seem to be angered most over the lack of proper consultation by the Biden administration before withdrawing completely. In fact, leaders from the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Italy – the United States’ closest friends in Europe – complained that there was more of a “diktat than conversation” as the U.S. made its final withdrawal decision. Many European officials feel a sense of betrayal, that the withdrawal was a political decision already seemingly made by the Biden administration without proper consultation with its NATO allies who fought alongside the United States throughout the entire war. The U.S.-led withdrawal from Afghanistan presents a textbook example of this frustration, similar to lapses in U.S. actions in Libya, Syria, and Iraq. For the United States’ European allies, respect and the lack of equilibrium within the trans-Atlantic relationship are central concerns. This is fueling a long-held debate raging in Europe: should Europe, particularly NATO, provide more for its own security instead of simply relying on the United States for protection?

Is the U.S. For Real?

These concerns culminate, however, in perhaps Europe’s primary concern: Was Biden’s pledge to restore America’s alliances, particularly the trans-Atlantic relationship, and restore U.S. credibility in the world, insincere? European leaders express concern that Biden, as was true under the Trump administration, expects the Europeans to simply fall in line with U.S. policy decisions despite how they may affect Europe. In this confusion, the Europeans wonder if the United States is honest in the constant reaffirmations stemming from the Biden administration to show how central the trans-Atlantic alliance is to U.S. foreign policy. Now, NATO allies wonder if the recent debacle will impact alliance operations, causing the United States to take more of the lead while Europe is expected to fall in line. The United Kingdom, which made the greatest contribution to the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, has been very vocal on this concern as well. In short, many European allies now question whether the United States is fit to the be the world leader and whether the United States really is back.

Conclusion

America’s European allies have been increasingly vocal and critical about their frustration about the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Europeans fear for their security as a new wave of refugees and an increase of Islamist extremism on its periphery loom. Moreover, U.S. allies in Europe feel they were not properly consulted on the withdrawal of a war to which they contributed significantly. Above all, and perhaps the most damaging, this is just the latest episode causing U.S. European allies to question the strength and legitimacy of the trans-Atlantic alliance.

The Post 9/11 Era Is Not Over

On September 11, 2001, terrorists hijacked four airplanes in the United States. Two of the planes hit both World Trade Center buildings in Manhattan and another crashed into the side of the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. A fourth plane crashed into a field in Pennsylvania, driven off course from its original target. In retaliation, on October 7, the U.S. military, in concert with British forces, began an airstrike campaign against al-Qaeda, the group that orchestrated the deadly attacks, and the Taliban, the Islamic militant group ruling Afghanistan who gave al-Qaeda sanctuary. Then, in March 2003, under the guise of Iraq’s ties to al-Qaeda and that the country possessed a cache of chemical, biological, and possibly nuclear weapons, U.S. forces invaded Iraq.

The advent of these two wars defined the post-9/11 era, shifting U.S. foreign policy to a new grand strategy rivaling that of the Cold War: counterterrorism. Yet, two decades on, the post-9/11 era lives on. The Global War on Terror stretched beyond Afghanistan and Iraq, sending U.S. forces across the Middle East, as well as North and West Africa, to defeat Islamist militancy. In spite of this, the Biden administration has tried in earnest to reorient U.S. foreign policy away from the Middle East, specifically the forever wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, into a new era focused primarily on countering China and other global threats ranging from cyber to climate change to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the post-9/11 era is far from over.

Afghanistan

Afghanistan has descended into chaos as the United States withdraws its troops. In July, President Biden confirmed that the withdrawal would be complete by August 31. As a result, the Taliban positioned itself to retake control of Afghanistan. Once it struck, the militant group defeated the Afghan security and defense forces quickly and the Afghan government collapsed. Now, The United States and its allies are in a mad dash to evacuate their own citizens and Afghans allies before the self-imposed August 31 deadline, a feat that is looking more and more bleak. U.S. and European officials just warned about the possibility of major attacks during the evacuation.

The United States may have decided to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan. Yet, removing its troops does not mean the post 9/11-era is over. The United States started the war in Afghanistan to defeat al-Qaeda and remove the Taliban from power. The U.S. did succeed in killing al-Qaeda’s leader, Osama bin Laden, in 2011 and the terrorist group is a shell of its former self. However, the Taliban never really left as they regrouped in Pakistan and, as the U.S. troop withdrawal ramped up, quickly regained power. Beyond the Taliban, the most significant, and perhaps immediate, threat to the United States and its allies is the Islamic State Khorasan, a group of former Pakistani Taliban fighters that has already carried out several attacks in Afghanistan. The terror threat in Afghanistan is far from over.

Iraq

In July, just three months after he announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, President Biden revealed that the United States will wrap up its combat mission in Iraq by year’s end and that the U.S. military would continue to assist the Iraqi security forces in fighting the Islamic State. Former President Barack Obama withdrew U.S. troops in 2011 after eight years of fighting in Iraq. As the threat posed by the Islamic State grew larger in both Iraq and Syria, the Obama administration sent troops back in 2014 in a training and advisory capacity.

Since then, American troops have mostly assisted in the collection of intelligence and advising the increasingly capable Iraqi forces as they fight the Islamic State. Even before Biden took office, the main U.S. focus has been assisting Iraqi forces, not fighting on their behalf. Thus, the mission has not changed; U.S. troops will continue to assist Iraq in its fight against the Islamic State. Moreover, any remaining U.S. troops will face continued threats from Iranian-backed Shiite militias that continue to terrorize Iraq. In short, the U.S. military’s presence in Iraq as well as the continued threats from both the Islamic State and Iranian-backed militias prove that the 9/11 era is not over.

Guantanamo Bay

Near the beginning of the war, the United States, under the George W. Bush administration, opened a prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where the U.S. housed enemy fighters captured in the war on terror without allowing the detainees their due process rights or protections under the Geneva Conventions. The legal foundation for the founding of the prison was Congress’s authorization for use of military force in 2001 to pursue whomever was responsible for the September 11 attacks. Approximately 780 individuals have been detained since the opening of the prison in 2002.

Guantanamo Bay’s existence has been quite controversial due to the interrogation methods many consider to be torture. Upon taking office, President Obama promised to close the prison. However, his efforts were curbed by members of both parties in Congress. In February, the Biden administration launched a review of the prison, resurrecting efforts to close Guantanamo Bay. The Biden administration also repatriated a detainee to Morocco, leaving 39 detainees in custody. However, therein lies the problem: Guantanamo Bay is still open.

Conclusion

Despite Biden administration efforts to move the U.S. into a new era of foreign policy focused on countering China, the United States must still contend with the remnants of the Global War on Terror. The Taliban are back in control of Afghanistan while the Islamic State Khorasan poses a significant threat. U.S. troops remain in Iraq, facing threats from Islamic State and Iranian-backed militias. Lastly, Guantanamo Bay remains open. The post-9/11 era, defined at first by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and then by the continued Global War on Terror, is not over.

Vice President Harris’ Trip to Southeast Asia is Well-Timed…and Overdue

On August 22, Vice President Kamala Harris arrived in Singapore on the first leg of a trip to Southeast Asia. After meeting with Singaporean leaders, Vice President Harris traveled to Vietnam. Her second international trip since taking office is designed to reaffirm the United States’ commitment to the geopolitically important region. Central to this reaffirmation is the Biden administration’s efforts to deepen U.S. engagement in the face of China’s growing global influence. Deeper engagement with the governments in the region is increasingly important to the United States’ long-term interests in the Indo-Pacific as China looks to gain more influence, particularly in the South China Sea.

The Indo-Pacific region has long been one of strategic importance to the United States. Early in his time in the White House, President Barack Obama introduced a shift in U.S. foreign policy, referred to as the pivot to Asia. This pivot was intended to “directly engage[ing] China, prop[ping] up Chinese rivals Japan and India, and figure[ing] out the North Korea situation” while transitioning  away from the U.S.-led wars in the Middle East. Of particular interest is the South China Sea, a primary source of tension between China, which has built up its naval presence and military capabilities in the sea, and several countries in Southeast Asia, which has competing claims.  Following his former boss’s policy, Biden is working to shift U.S. foreign policy away from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan into a new era focused primarily on Asia and, specifically, the great power rivalry with China. As a piece of the Biden administration’s broader Asia strategy and in light of recent events in the region and worldwide, Vice President Harris’ trip to Southeast is well-timed and overdue.

Stop Ignoring Us!

The countries in Southeast Asia embraced the news of Vice President Harris’ trip to the region. Several countries have expressed disappointment over the lack of engagement from the Biden administration. In fact, the United States’ allies and partners in Southeast Asia were largely ignored by the Trump administration. For Biden, who has promised to work with American allies, Southeast Asia feels very much left out of that promise, as the countries in Southeast Asia “hardly figure on Biden’s diplomatic agenda.” In the first several months of Biden’s tenure, his foreign policy has focused primarily on countering China and on U.S. treaty allies, including Japan and South Korea. However, as President Biden is quickly realizing, the countries in Southeast Asia are critical to his overall foreign policy objective: countering China. Thus, Vice President Harris’ trip to Vietnam and Singapore was well-timed and, one could argue, overdue.

The Afghan Withdrawal Reaches Throughout the Region

The abrupt U.S. withdrawal and difficulties in safely evacuating U.S. citizens and Afghan allies from Afghanistan has caused much of the world to question the United States’ credibility and reliability as an international partner. Much like the United States’ North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies who fought alongside the United State throughout the entire war, the United States’ allies and partners in Asia are also asking this question.

Washington’s perception is that the countries in Southeast Asia have gradually drifted away from the United States in favor of closer ties with China. This fear is compounded by the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, with accusations that the United States has abandoned its NATO allies but also triggered criticism that the United States also left its Afghan allies, those who worked with and for the U.S. government during the war, high and dry. Vice President Harris’ trip to Southeast Asia is well-timed, as well as overdue, as it presents an opportunity for the United States to quell its allies and partners concerns about U.S. reliability and reassure the region that the United States is deeply committed to its security and prosperity in its efforts to counter China, which is a lynchpin of Biden’s foreign policy.

And then there was China…

Lastly, Vice President Harris’ trip to Southeast Asia is a play in the Biden administration’s playbook for reorienting U.S. foreign policy toward the great power rivalry with China. In fact, the primary reason behind the abrupt and bungled withdrawal from Afghanistan was so the Biden administration may do just that: focus on what President Biden has referred to as the United States’ primary national security threat. Countering growing China’s expansion into the region, including the South China Sea, remains one of the Biden administration’s top priorities and is a central piece into the United States’ broader Asia strategy. By traveling to the region, Vice President Harris is laying the groundwork for broadening that strategy, and the first step is to reassure the United States’ allies and partners in the region as they will prove to be critical to the United States’ efforts to counter China.

Conclusion

Vice President Harris’ trip to Southeast Asia was a necessary and strategically timed trip. U.S. allies and partners in the region have expressed frustration over the lack of one-on-one engagement since Biden took office. Additionally, the abrupt and chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan prompted many across the world, including allies and partners in Southeast Asia, to question U.S. reliability and credibility. Moreover, the Biden administration has placed China at the center of his foreign policy, which greatly impacts the Southeast Asian region. As a result, it was imperative that the United States reassure its Southeast Asian allies and partners of the Biden administration’s commitment to the region and the strategic importance these countries play in U.S. foreign policy.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

On July 26, Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi met with U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House. During this meeting, the two leaders announced that the United States would formally end its combat mission in Iraq by the end of the year. Yet, not all 2,500 U.S. troops located in Iraq would return home as an undetermined number would remain to continue assisting Iraqi security forces in battling the Islamic State, but in more of a training and advisory capacity.

Credit:  DVIDSHUB

While Mr. Kadhimi’s government silently supports U.S. troops remaining in Iraq, he is under intense domestic pressure from members of a government that have fallen under the influence of Iranian-backed militias and those with close ties with Iran to rid the country of any U.S. military presence. Those with close ties to Iran believe the true intention behind an American military presence in Iraq is to counter Iran. The recent announcement does not really change the current situation and instead more accurately depicts the reality on the ground: U.S. troops have primarily been serving in training and advisory roles for the last several years as Iraqi security forces fight the Islamic State. It does underscore, however, Mr. Kadhimi’s most prominent challenge: balancing its two most important allies, which have left Iraq in the middle of the of its tug of war. 

A Generation Later

On the one side, there is the United States. President Biden’s decision to end of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq comes on the heels of the United States’ full withdrawal from Afghanistan by September 11, marking the end of the post 9-11 era. The U.S., under the George W. Bush administration, invaded Iraq in 2003 under the false presumption that Iraq under Saddam Hussein developed weapons of mass destruction. The U.S. toppled Saddam, removing him from power, and then settled in for years of nation building to restore the decimated Iraqi institutions and set up a power-sharing agreement along the sectarian and ethnic lines that define Iraq.

Then, in 2011, after a largely failed attempt at putting Iraq back together, President Barack Obama withdrew U.S. troops from Iraq, eight years after the initial U.S. invasion. While some troops remained under the authority of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, the advent of the Islamic State in 2014 and its spread across both Iraq and Syria led to the Iraqi government’s request that the U.S. send more troops back to aid in its fight against the growing and increasingly violent terrorist organization. The cold fact is that Iraq relies heavily on U.S. support and the presence of its troops to keep the country from decaying into civil war, putting Iraq right in the middle of the United States’ power struggle with Iran.

Blood is Thicker Than Water

And on the other side, there is Iran. The Islamic Republic, through its proxy militias and close ties to members of the Iraqi government, wields considerable power in Iraq. Iran also shares close ethnic and sectarian ties with some of Iraq’s population, which contributes to its degree of power. Most of these militia groups are Shiite Muslims, which represent a majority in Iraq, and the most powerful groups are stood up by Iran, which is a Shiite-majority country.

Moreover, Iran, through its tentacles that permeate the Iraqi government, is applying pressure on Iraqi officials to force the United States out entirely. In this vein, Iran is carrying out attacks on U.S. targets in Iraq all the while denying any responsibility. These militias, under the command of Iran, are working to push U.S. troops out of Iraq entirely and permanently by pressuring Mr. Kadhimi and the Iraqi government to solidify its own power in the region. This is how Iran is putting Mr. Kadhimi and Iraq square in the middle of its wargames with the United States.

A Delicate Balancing Act

Lately, Iraq’s efforts to balance its two allies, who are engaged in retaliatory airstrikes but are also working toward a deal to limit Iran’s nuclear weapons in return for sanctions relief, has come to a head as Iranian-backed militias have targeted U.S. personnel in Iraq and Syria in retaliation for the assassination of Major General Qassim Soleimani, along with an Iraqi security official, at the hands of an American airstrike in 2020. The United States has responded with airstrikes aimed at the Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria. Both efforts are a major political headache for Mr. Kadhimi, who has done his best to check the power of the Iranian-backed militias and halt American retaliatory airstrikes while also keeping close partnerships with both Iran and the United States.

Conclusion

Iraq is caught right in the middle of the tug of war of war between the United States and Iran. Despite the havoc that the United States’ military presence and its often detrimental ties with Iran are wreaking in Iraq, for now, very little is likely to change any time soon. Unable to stop Iran’s attacks on its U.S. partners or prevent U.S. retaliation on the militias backed by Iran, Iraq is now facing the “biggest threat to its stability since the Islamic State.”

Chaos in the Caribbean

It’s been an eventful few weeks for two of the United States’ Caribbean neighbors. On July 7, Haiti’s president was assassinated at his private home in Port-au-Prince, sending the country into a chaotic tailspin. Just days later, on July 11, protesters spilled into the streets of several Cuban cities, calling for the end of the communist regime. The United States has long and complicated histories and relationships with both Haiti and Cuba, marred in intervention and domination as well as “distrust and antagonism.” Thus far in Mr. Biden’s tenure as president, he has done very little in defining his administration’s policies toward Either country. In reality, the recent turmoil in Haiti and Cuba highlights the fact that the Biden administration lacks an overarching policy toward Cuba and has no defined strategy toward Haiti, except for a few recent reactive measures.

Credit: Nick Kenrick

The Mysterious Murder

In the early hours of July 7, a group of assassins shot and killed Haiti’s president, Jovenel Moise, in his home in Port-au-Prince. Haitian officials claim that two Americans and nearly two dozen Colombian nationals were part of the assassination plot, an event that sent Haiti into a spiral of chaos and confusion. After the assassination, Prime Minister Claude Joseph took power. However, there was no clear transition of power as the late president had appointed Ariel Henry as the new prime minister just days before he died. Further compounding the issue is the fact that the country has two conflicting constitutions with varying instructions for this type of situation, and the head of Haiti’s highest court, who may have settled the confusion, died of COVID-19 in June; The position remains unfilled. Moreover, violent gangs are also competing for power. Haiti is indeed in dire straits.

A History of Intervention

The current situation in Haiti presents an interesting challenge for the Biden administration, likely one that was not anticipated. As the poorest country in the hemisphere, Haiti is not typically considered to be a geopolitically important country. However, Haiti has historically been of strategic interest to the United States. U.S. involvement in Haiti began in the late eighteenth century with the Americans supporting French colonists’ efforts to squash revolts perpetrated by groups of enslaved Haitians. In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson sent U.S. Marines into Haiti to restore stability after the Haitian president was assassinated. U.S. intervention in Haiti did not end there; nearly eight decades later, the U.S. under the Clinton administration again sent troops into Haiti in 1994 to restore the presidency of Jean-Bertrand Astride.

Today, Haiti is again erupting into the chaos and violence. Because of Haiti’s geographic proximity to the United States and the tendency for Haitian nationals fleeing the economically devastated and politically unstable country to head towards their wealthier and more stable neighbor to the north, the Biden administration is in desperate need of defined strategy toward Haiti. However, it has become increasingly clear that the United States under the Biden administration does not have a defined strategy for how to handle the instability erupting approximately 800 miles off its southern coast.

Cuba Not So Libre?

On July 11, Cubans took to the streets in a wave of unprecedented protests, frustrated by poor living conditions, rising COVID-19 infections, power outages, a strained health system, and a lack of basic goods and services. Above all, protesters are calling for an end to the communist regime that has been in power for more than 60 years. The communist regime, now led by President Miguel Diaz-Canal, moved to quickly quell the protests unlike any others seen in Cuban history, demonstrated in the government’s characteristic autocratic nature. Additionally, President Diaz-Cana quickly blamed America for Cuba’s suffering. Needless to say, all parties in Cuba are struggling in the country’s current situation.

And the Plot Thickens

The United States and Cuba continue to have a tense relationship, rooted in the Cold War. Beginning with the Kennedy administration, the United States has imposed harsh economic penalties against Cuba, escalating into a full-blown economic embargo with strict travel restrictions in the 1960s. In the following decades, Cuba only became more isolated and relations between the United States and Cuba further deteriorated.

Then, it looked like America’s approach to Cuba would finally change when Barack Obama took office in 2009. During his campaign, President Obama noted that “isolating Cuba had failed to advance U.S. interest”; the time had come for a diplomatic strategy. Under the Obama administration, the United States relaxed its policies and relations between the two adversaries normalized. However, when President Donald Trump took office, he reversed much of the progress the Obama administration accomplished.

During his campaign, now President Biden promised to reverse Trump’s antagonistic and detrimental approach to Cuba. However, the Biden administration has made it clear that Cuba is not among his highest priorities. This became increasingly apparent during the protests. The Biden administration made nothing but reactive statements, declaring the United States’ support for the Cuban people and taken noncommittal actions like considering initiatives to make the internet more accessible or allowing more remittances to the Cuban people. Yet, these actions fail to illustrate the administration’s overarching policy on Cuba. In fact, what is clear is that the Biden administration does not have an overarching policy toward Cuba and is in no hurry to design one.

Conclusion

Recent events in Cuba are unprecedented while the situation in Haiti is par for the course. Each country’s situation presents a unique challenge to U.S. foreign policy. However, the assassination of Haiti’s president and protests breaking out in Cuban cities have highlighted that the Biden administration has no overarching policy for Cuba or any defined strategy for handling the Haitian political crisis.