European allies had hoped Joe Biden’s election to the US presidency would bolster Nato’s relevance after Donald Trump’s acrimonious years. Washington’s messy withdrawal from Afghanistan is prompting a rethink.
After the fall of Kabul, EU defence and security officials have been strikingly critical of the US decision to send home its troops, arguing it has weakened Nato and raised questions about Europe’s security dependence on Washington. Their reaction marks a bitter end to the alliance’s longest-running mission, which shifted over two decades from combat to a training programme involving 10,000 personnel from 36 countries by the time it ended.
“This kind of troop withdrawal caused chaos. Chaos causes additional suffering,” Artis Pabriks, Latvia’s defence minister, told local radio on Tuesday. Such long-term missions were unlikely in the future, he added: “This era is over. Unfortunately, the west, and Europe in particular, are showing they are weaker globally.”
He echoed Ben Wallace, UK defence secretary, who appeared on the verge of tears on Monday as he reckoned “some would not get back” from the war-torn country. “It’s sad. Twenty years of sacrifice is what it is,” he said.
Armin Laschet, Germany’s conservative candidate to succeed chancellor Angela Merkel, on Tuesday called the allied troop withdrawal “the greatest debacle that Nato has experienced since its foundation”.
“It looks like Nato has been completely overtaken by American unilateral decisions,” Lord Peter Ricketts, the UK’s former national security adviser, said. “First of all, Trump’s decision to start talking to the Taliban about leaving and then the Biden decision to set a timetable. The Afghanistan operation was always going to end some time, it was never going to go on forever, but the manner in which it’s been done has been humiliating and damaging to Nato.”
Nato’s intervention in Afghanistan, prompted by the al-Qaeda-led 9/11 attacks on the US, was the first and only time the alliance invoked its article five collective defence principle, in which an attack on one ally is considered an attack on all.
Almost 20 years on, there have been cracks in the unity over the best way to end “America’s longest war”. As the Taliban encircled Kabul on Friday, Wallace revealed he had tried this year to form a coalition of “like-minded” Nato countries that would keep some troops in Afghanistan independently of the US.
Lord George Robertson, who was Nato secretary-general on the day of the twin towers attack in New York, and who triggered the article five a few hours later, suggested the US decision to withdraw even as other allies were mounting objections was damaging. “It weakens Nato because the principle of ‘in together, out together’ seems to have been abandoned both by Donald Trump and by Joe Biden,” he told the Financial Times.
Biden administration officials have made a point of consulting with allies as they try to unstitch Trump’s isolationist legacy. On Afghanistan, however, some alliance members complain Washington presented them with a fait accompli.
“This was discussed at length, and the US listened, but Biden had made a political decision,” said one person familiar with the withdrawal planning.
Once the decision was formalised, the UK, Turkey and Italy were keen to find a way to keep forces in place to help stabilise the country. But this was considered impossible without the vast military infrastructure provided by the US, notably air support from the US-run Bagram air base just north of Kabul.
Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Tuesday that the collapse of the Afghan government had thrown into doubt Turkey’s plan to continue securing Kabul’s international airport.
“We must realise that when it comes to the Nato mission to Afghanistan, it was not possible to have an independent role for Germany or the European forces,” Merkel said on Monday. “We always said that we are basically dependent on the decisions of the US government.”
One former military commander who served in Afghanistan said there were “big implications” for perceptions of Nato’s deterrence capabilities.
“It’s all very well Nato talking up its ability to fight off Russia, but it couldn’t even find 3,000 to 5,000 troops to ensure Afghanistan was stable enough to force a stalemate, and eventually a ceasefire on the Taliban, without American underpinning,” he said.
In its 2030 strategy, Nato outlined a promise for deeper political co-ordination and renewed commitment from its members to the 2 per cent defence spending target. But the crisis in Afghanistan has underlined unease over a lack of strategic focus.
“Afghanistan today is the umpteenth expression of Nato’s failed, supine policy,” Ione Belarra, Podemos leader and Spain’s social policy minister, wrote on Twitter.
Lilith Verstrynge, another leading Podemos official, argued that Nato’s failures provided all the more reason for Europe to move towards a more independent stance of its own, a stance pushed by French president Emmanuel Macron. “It is time to make a shift towards greater sovereignty and the defence of our own interests,” she said.
Asked on Monday if Nato should move away from “nation-building”, Merkel agreed: “The goals [of such deployments] should be made much narrower.”
Lord Mark Sedwill, who served as a former ambassador and senior Nato representative to Afghanistan, suggested this week that the alliance should focus its efforts on rebuilding the practical capabilities to intervene when necessary, “avoiding the over-reach and impatience which proved fatal to the Afghan campaign”.
The Afghan drawdown might act as a cautionary tale for Nato nations that had failed to recognise that US security guarantees were time limited, Robertson said. “If this is a wake-up call to the Europeans — that in the future they’ll have to safeguard their own security much more than before because . . . the American global policeman is not necessarily going to be around all the time — then it will have served a purpose.”
Additional reporting by Daniel Dombey in Madrid, Victor Mallet in Paris and Katrina Manson in Washington