How will Afghanistan affect America's alliances?

Biden has set August 31 as a deadline for the evacuation of US troops from Afghanistan [Getty]
5 min read
Washington, D.C.
27 August, 2021
Analysis: It remains to be seen if the bridges burned during the US withdrawal from Afghanistan can be repaired and rebuilt.

As the US hastily withdraws from Afghanistan, leaving thousands of Afghan allies in limbo in a deteriorating security situation, the lack of coordination with NATO allies has shocked policymakers and experts alike.

Though the final date for withdrawal has been known for months, plans for the exact execution and timing were not widely disseminated, even among America's long-time NATO allies, leading to concern over future diplomacy.

Will this episode affect Europe's confidence in US foreign policy moving forward?

"The drawdown was completely unilateral. The allies did not like Trump's 'America first' policy broadly. Biden has been different, but not on Afghanistan"

As heartbreaking scenes at Kabul's airport aired across the world, some European leaders did not mince words.  

"With a heavy heart and horror," Norbert Röttgen, member of the Christian Democrats and chairman of the German parliament's foreign relations committee, called the early withdrawal a "serious and far-reaching miscalculation by the current administration".

Similarly, Tom Tugendhat, the Conservative chair of the UK parliament's foreign affairs committee, tweeted, "Afghanistan is the biggest foreign policy disaster since Suez. We need to think again about how we handle friends, who matters and how we defend our interests."

These reactions come after four years of the Trump administration pursuing an "America first" policy, side-lining long-time NATO allies. With the election of Joe Biden, who campaigned on rebuilding alliances and used the slogan "America is back", the unilateral decision to quickly withdraw appeared to come as a surprise and disappointment to America's European allies.

"The drawdown was completely unilateral. The allies did not like Trump's 'America first' policy broadly. Biden has been different, but not on Afghanistan. The allies were not brought into the process. Biden's decision on Afghanistan was as unilateral as Trump's was," Ian Bremmer, president and founder of Eurasia Group, tells The New Arab.

"The will damage our relationships moving forward."

"Times have changed. This is not your grandfather's NATO in Europe and the Middle East"

He attributes Biden's decision to his long-held belief (expressed during his tenure as vice president) that the US should not remain in Afghanistan. The execution of the policy, however, is another matter.

"It was American exceptionalism. They believed they had all the answers, that they did not need other people's input," he says.

He predicts that moving forward, European relationships with the US could be more transactional, less trusting, and less reliant on the US. He suggests the Biden administration do its best to rebuild bridges.

Then-US President Donald Trump attacked then-UK Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit strategy, plunging the transatlantic "special relationship" to a new low in 2018. [Getty]
Then-US President Donald Trump attacked then-UK Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit strategy, plunging the transatlantic 'special relationship' to a new low in 2018. [Getty]

Gordan Adams, a professor of US foreign policy at American University, is not worried about this decision affecting US-European relations because he believes that this move is part of a larger trend.

"Times have changed. This is not your grandfather's NATO in Europe and the Middle East. A huge power redistribution has happened in the past 20 years. Alliance relationships are not as powerful a motivator as they used to be," he tells TNA.

"Trump accelerated that by simply disrespecting our allies and cosying up to the Orbans and Putins of world. The world got hesitant."

"If the administration shows leadership, reassures its friends and allies and shows Afghanistan was an aberration and the exception, August 2021 may not make much of a difference"

Robert Hathaway, director of the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, calls the lack of coordination a clear policy blunder, but he does not see it hampering America's relationship with its European allies - as long as America does not make similar decisions in the future.

"It is something to be concerned about. The Biden administration failed its first overseas challenge. If the withdrawal establishes a pattern of non-coordination and incompetence, then relations may be affected, he tells TNA.  

On the other hand, "If the administration shows leadership, reassures its friends and allies and shows Afghanistan was an aberration and the exception, I don't think August 2021 will make much of a difference."  

Hathaway, who was not surprised by the collapse of the Afghan Army, says, "The final report on the Afghanistan withdrawal is still being written. In six weeks, we might have a different take."

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Indeed, the situation is already shifting. Since the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, the US, in growing coordination with its allies, has evacuated more than 70,000 Afghans who have worked with the coalition.

Though it will still be a challenge to evacuate all Afghans who qualify for visas by the 31 August self-imposed deadline, the ramped-up departures have praise. The possibility of calling this mission a "success" has fallen into question following Thursday's bombing at the airport in Kabul that killed 13 US service members and around 80 Afghans (with a death toll is expected to rise).

"If they lose this issue, they cannot take on water on other things," Patrick James, professor of international relations at the University of Southern California, noting that Biden is already taking heat for new mask mandates, border security, and inflation. He needs to show success with this evacuation mission so he can focus on other policies, mainly domestic.

"Biden has made it clear that the era of big US invasions and occupations of other countries has come to an end," Juan Cole, a professor of history at the University of Michigan.

"To the extent that there is a terrorist threat to the US, he would deal with it through a lean counterterrorism effort, rather than a nation-building counterinsurgency. He is drawing a curtain on the Bush administration. The focus will be largely domestic. He has to get us past the pandemic and bring back jobs."

"Biden has made it clear that the era of big US invasions and occupations of other countries has come to an end"

Despite the numerous criticisms of this withdrawal's execution, the decision to leave would likely have had to be made at some point, and the outcome of a Taliban takeover may have been different only by date.

"This withdrawal was going to be difficult no matter what. The Afghan government and the US did not want to evacuate a lot of people quickly because they wanted to show confidence in the government," Richard Hanania, president of the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology, tells TNA.

"There's no argument for if it were done in another 10 years that it would be any better."

Brooke Anderson is The New Arab's correspondent in Washington DC, covering US and international politics, business, and culture.

Follow her on Twitter: @Brookethenews