The war in Afghanistan, which started 20 years ago, is the largest out-of-area military operation between the United States and Europe under the name of “counter-terrorism” and within the framework of NATO. But the withdrawal of Afghanistan after 20 years has not only failed to add to the “transatlantic relationship”, but has caused serious secondary damage to the newly budding relationship between the United States and Europe.
The Trump administration’s unilateralist foreign policy, undifferentiated attacks on Europe in the economic, trade, political and security spheres and extreme pressure have caused European countries to complain that they are causing the first major damage to U.S.-European relations.
After the Biden administration took office, the United States changed its strategy in an attempt to regroup its allies. Under the slogan “America is back,” the Biden administration has courted Europe in building political consensus, shelving economic and trade disputes, “returning” to multilateralism and reaffirming security commitments.
Some European countries have also been active in their support for America’s inertia, as if unilateralism and bullying allies were really just “exceptions” to the tradition of U.S. foreign policy, and that U.S.-European relations could “return” to close allies and even be “reshaped” as “equal partners.”
But America’s poor performance in withdrawing from Afghanistan and its serious consequences are enough to break Europe’s wishful thinking.
Judging by the immediate consequences of America’s performance, the US has not only lost face on its own but has also taken its European allies to collective humiliation, not only refusing to take responsibility but also pushing around, much to Europe’s injury. As the leading brother in leading NATO’s allies in the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. military controls the most important military and civilian resources, and its self-inflicted allies have struggled to carry out an orderly retreat.
Public opinion in many European countries, while mocking the United States, has thrown criticism at its own governments. Allies have also taken aim at the Biden administration and NATO agencies in response to public pressure. Such scenes of mutual spats and bickering continue to leave the US and its allies in the dark, so much so that The EU’s high representative for foreign and security policy, Mr Boleyn, has had to admit that America’s “Afghanistan moment” has “humiliated the entire West”.
America’s self-interest in the withdrawal decision will shake Europe’s confidence in the Biden administration’s commitment to “return to multilateralism” and “focus on core partners.”
Since the Obama years, withdrawal from Afghanistan has been high on the U.S. government’s agenda, but withdrawals have sometimes resulted in temporary troop surges, including disagreements between the U.S. and Europe over the consequences of withdrawal. Despite opposition from European allies to a separate treaty with the Taliban, Biden is now implementing nothing more than his predecessor’s unilateral policies. There is growing information that the U.S. military is crowding out the resources and space of its European allies as it withdraws.
How can Europe be assured that its own security is fully entrusted to the United States when it is not facing a life-or-death test?
The unruly nature of the U.S. withdrawal and the loss of control over the situation in Afghanistan will have more serious consequences, raising the risk that the refugee problem will hit Europe again. The 20-year war in Afghanistan has been creating a source of refugees for Europe, with more than 80,000 Afghan refugees still waiting for permission to take over before leaving.
After the worst phase of the refugee crisis around 2015, Europe has exhausted its efforts to absorb the refugee stock while trying to avoid another large-scale influx of refugees due to regional unrest.
In Europe’s original calculations, if an orderly withdrawal from Afghanistan were possible, there would not be a large number of refugees from Afghanistan in the short term, except for the need to take in Afghans who had worked or served themselves (the UK had a reception plan of 20,000 and Germany had 10,000). But the current chaos has greatly increased the panic among Afghans, and fleeing their homes and flocking to Europe could become a knee-jerk choice.
And America’s first response to the refugee problem is to keep Europe on its back and let Albania and Kosovo, which have asked for their own help, agree to accept it. This has added to the psychological shadow of Europe, which has experienced the refugee crisis and is still dealing with the aftermath of terrorist attacks, ethnic divisions and inter-State tensions.
The failure of the United States to achieve a dignified and orderly withdrawal from Afghanistan not only highlights the failure of the U.S. foreign intervention policy, but also exposes the failure of U.S. foreign and military departments to anticipate, coordinate, misalignment and low morale, which will force Europe’s doubts about the U.S. from a “decline in willingness to lead the West” during the Trump era to a “decline in the ability to lead the overall strategy” of the Biden era.
Until the eve of the withdrawal, Europe remained confident in the U.S. capabilities, especially the systemic capabilities that dominate the overall strategy, and after Biden painted a vision of a “step back” from a counterterrorism strategy to a major-power competitive strategy, some European countries actively sought U.S. security protection out of trust in U.S. power, even following the U.S. and Russia and China in confrontation.
But now Europe will have to rethink the illusion of “great prospects” offered by the Biden administration, take a small view of the situation in Afghanistan and turn its back on itself, re-identify its own interests and reflect on its relevance to American interests and “common values”. As a reflection of this reflection, the voice of European countries advocating “strategic autonomy” is once again rising.
Europe’s dual questioning of America’s will and ability, and its quest for more strategic autonomy, will make the U.S. rhetoric of a strategic shift and big-power competition more pallid and less supportive.
In the view of U.S. strategists, leaving Kabul has strategic value in strategic contraction and re-concentration, serving the purpose of a long-term strategic confrontation between the U.S. and China and Russia, so that despite the chaos and ugly details, it is worth paying for the big strategic goals. The Us seems to be able to justify the Saigon moment with the “victory” of the Cold War, but it does not see any “Kabul moment” justifying Europe.
While the United States is still anxious to shirk its responsibility for the withdrawal from Afghanistan with the “not Saigon moment”, Europe has begun to use another “Suez Canal moment” to express its loss, discontent and vigilance. Avoiding more crisis moments and reducing more associated harm should be a top priority for Europe in the future when choosing to move forward with the United States.