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.
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.
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.