On the weekend of August 14, German diplomats routinely driving through Kabul’s diplomatic quarter noted an oddity. US soldiers who usually keep guard had abandoned the compound.
The Germans also noticed that the road to the international airport, normally secured by American troops, was also undefended. They called around to Western colleagues and learned that the US had withdrawn the forces to their own embassy, according to German press reports.
Only the next day did US diplomats inform their allies that they, too, should leave the so-called Green Zone and head to the airport, as the Americans were already doing.
The casual lack of consultation was only one of several affronts inflicted on Washington’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies as US President Joe Biden’s disorganized retreat from Afghanistan took shape.
At the very least, it seemed an act of ingratitude. In a show of solidarity in 2001, NATO volunteered to help the US conquer Afghanistan after the 9/11 terror attacks on New York City and Washington. They then joined “nation-building” efforts to train Afghan security forces and build civil society. Now, they were being left in the lurch.
It should have come as no surprise. Allies were not consulted on Biden’s April decision to unconditionally withdraw from Afghanistan on a specific date. His decision replaced his predecessor Donald Trump’s condition that the Taliban should first set up a power-sharing agreement with the Afghan government.
While Trump’s condition was of questionable value – the Taliban began to roll up military victories in rural areas while he was still in power – NATO opposed Biden’s idea for a withdrawal set by a calendar. The alliance went along with it anyway.
The Taliban’s assault on cities started in May.
Discarding possible NATO concerns has become a US habit. The allies were not consulted when the US withdrew from forward military bases from which they supported Afghan forces and collected intelligence on Taliban movements. Nor did Biden’s team discuss with them the surprise July pullout from Bagram Airbase.
The sudden US surrender of access to the airport put the US and NATO evacuation efforts in a bind. Foreign nationals and Afghans who had partnered with NATO worked hard to navigate hostile Taliban checkpoints to get to Kabul’s airfield for a flight out.
Sometimes they were turned back or even beaten. If they reached the airport, US troops in charge of security didn’t know whether to let them pass. Occasionally, rescue planes for Europe left empty.
Even as the chaotic exodus of refugees was underway, NATO opinion seemed like an afterthought. It took two days after the airport rush for Biden to contact two allies – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The sum of slights produced an outpouring of resentment across the continent. “We lived a little bit the great illusion,” said Nathalie Loiseau, a French Parliament member and former minister in President Emmanuel Macron’s government.
Markus Soeder, governor of the Bavaria region in Germany and a major figure in Merkel’s coalition, said flatly: “The United States of America bear the main responsibility for the current situation.”
Armin Laschet, Merkel’s choice to succeed her as chancellor, called the botched withdrawal “the biggest debacle NATO has suffered since its founding.”
Tom Tugendhat, a member of Johnson’s Conservative Party and chair of the UK parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, said: “This does not need to be defeat, but at the moment it damn well feels like it.”
Czech Republic President Milos Zeman declared that “the Americans have lost their status of global leader.”
NATO heads of government were generally more circumspect. For one thing, the continent’s defense largely depends on US military strength and ground and air resources, especially against the possible threat from Russia.
None among NATO’s 29 other members has the equipment, money or apparently, the desire to match Washington’s capabilities. Only seven members reached the 2% of GDP level of military spending NATO had set for itself in 2014.
In addition, while Biden is generally blamed for underestimating the Taliban’s ability to rapidly take over Afghanistan, other leaders had to defend themselves for making the same miscalculation.
In June, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas dismissed suspicions that the Afghan army could hold out against the Taliban. “All these questions are based on the assumption that the Taliban will hold the scepter of power in Afghanistan in a few weeks. That is not the assumption I am working from,” he said.
After Kabul’s fall, Maas admitted: “All of us – the federal government, the intelligence services, the international community – we have misjudged the situation. Honesty demands that we formally admit that to be the case.”
Two months ago, British Chief of Defense Staff General Nick Carter expressed confidence in the Afghan army. “I think, first and foremost, the current Afghan government, with its very well-trained army, could hold the ring,” he said.
Last week, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab acknowledged that “the Taliban takeover and the collapse of the Afghan forces have happened quicker than we assessed.”
Does all this mean NATO is finished as an effective alliance? Certainly, over recent years, missteps by the alliance as a whole and some of its members independently have raised doubts about the competence, not only specifically of NATO, but the West as a whole.
The US-led 2003 invasion of Iraq was against the advice of Germany and France, who stayed out of the war. In 2011, Britain and France promoted the use of airpower that helped overthrow Libya’s dictator Moammar Ghaddafi, only to abandon the country to the fate of an ongoing civil war after his downfall.
US president Barack Obama failed on his threats to punish Syria if it used chemical weapons in its civil war, while Donald Trump removed American anti-terror forces from Syria, leaving NATO ally Turkey along with antagonists Russia and Iran to compete over their own disparate interests there.
And there is still no effort to coordinate the evacuation of civilians from Kabul. Late last week, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said talks among the allies take place “several times a day, to affect smooth as possible movement through the checkpoints,” but added: “I know of no effort to combine these conversations with respect to some sort of coalition effort.”
This has led NATO countries to each individually deal with the Taliban to ease the exodus of their citizens and especially Afghan partners. There is even concern that the US might at some point order its soldiers to leave without consultation.
Biden set an August 31 deadline for the withdrawal of all US troops, unless American citizens are still in-country. However, he’s been vague about nationals of allied countries and their Afghan partners who might be left behind beyond that date.
The question is not whether the alliance will now crumble. It won’t. The issue is whether European partners are just perpetual ornaments in decision-making or actual participants. Biden’s US-centric decision-making raised suspicions that he, like Trump, harbors an America-first view of the alliance, only without Trump’s bombast.
That opinion could become especially critical if the Afghan crisis climaxes in a refugee crisis for Europe. Uncontrolled immigration is sensitive in Europe and would put NATO’s willingness to blindly follow American leadership under critical scrutiny in the future.