BRUSSELS — Afghanistan’s rapid unraveling is already raising grumblings about the U.S.’ credibility, compounding the wounds of the Donald Trump years and reinforcing the idea that America’s backing for its allies is not unlimited.
The Taliban’s lightning advance comes at a moment when many in Europe and Asia had hoped that President Joe Biden would reestablish America’s firm presence in international affairs, especially as China and Russia angle to extend their influence. Now America’s retreat is bound to sow doubts.
“When Biden says, ‘America is back,’ many people will say, ‘Yes, America is back home,’ ” said François Heisbourg, a French defense analyst.
“Few will gang up on the U.S. for finally stopping a failed enterprise,” he said. “Most people would say it should have happened a long time ago.” But in the longer term, he added, “the notion that you cannot count on the Americans will strike deeper roots because of Afghanistan.”
The United States has been pulling back from military engagements abroad since President Barack Obama, he noted, and under Trump, “we had to prepare for a U.S. no longer willing to assume the burden of unlimited liability alliances.”
That hesitation will now be felt all the more strongly among countries in play in the world, like Taiwan, Ukraine, the Philippines and Indonesia, which can only please China and Russia, analysts suggest.
“What made the U.S. strong, powerful and rich was that from 1918 through 1991 and beyond, everybody knew we could depend on the U.S. to defend and stand up for the free world,” said Tom Tugendhat, chair of the British Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee.
“The sudden withdrawal from Afghanistan after 20 years and so much investment in lives and effort will see allies and potential allies around the world wondering whether they have to decide between democracies and autocracies and realize some democracies don’t have staying power anymore,” he added. In Asia, the U.S.’ withdrawal and looming collapse of the Afghan government have been viewed with a mixture of resignation and trepidation.
“Most Asians have already factored it in because it’s been a protracted process, not a shock,” said Susan L. Shirk, head of the 21st Century China Center at the University of California, San Diego.
The country expressing the most concern has been China, which shares a short, remote border with Afghanistan, which under the Taliban served as a haven for Uyghur extremists from Xinjiang, the far western Chinese province.
China, which routinely criticizes the United States for acting as a global belligerent, has warned that a hasty U.S. withdrawal could create instability across the region.
At the same time, China’s Foreign Ministry offered a public show of support to the Taliban, holding two days of talks late last month with a delegation that included one of the movement’s founders, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.
The issue for America’s allies and others, though, is less “credibility,” a much misused term, than ability to see commitments through to the end. And the world can seem a more anarchic, less comprehensible place, said Jean-Marie Guéhenno, former French and United Nations diplomat now at Columbia University.
“The military debacle of Afghanistan, coming after the diplomatic debacle of Syria, will make Western nations more inward-looking, cynical and nationalist,” he said, “as they feel surrounded by a world that they don’t control but keeps intruding.”
Still, Guéhenno said, Western democracies “must not adopt a doctrine of indifference to the plight of other people.”
Afghanistan was never a particularly vital interest for Europe to begin with. NATO went to war there 20 years ago only to show solidarity with the United States after 9/11.
But the suddenness of Afghanistan’s collapse is another reminder of what can happen when Europe outsources decisions to Washington, D.C.
NATO countries let the Americans call the shots in Afghanistan, even if they complained about a lack of consultation. For NATO, the mantra was always “in together, out together.” Once Biden decided to pull the plug, NATO troops also began leaving at speed; there is little appetite for returning.
Europe’s main worries now are a new flow of Afghan migrants and a new safe haven for terrorism. But for a long time now, European terrorism has had its roots closer to home, in North Africa, the Middle East and in domestic disaffection.
The Biden administration has other problems, and Europeans want support from Washington on more important issues, like climate change, Russia and China, said Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House, the London research institution.
“Biden will take some hit for lack of consultation with allies and piggybacking on a flawed Trump strategy,” Niblett said. “But there is a lot more to be gained for American soft power by getting through the corona crisis and focusing on vaccines for the world than on putting more effort into whether the Afghan government survives.”
Allies, especially Britain and Germany, were angry at the way the pullout was announced and saw it as a fait accompli, so there will be some residual damage, Niblett said.
“But Europe won’t give up on a Biden who believes in allies on the big issues that matter,” he said. “On these, Biden is leading in the right direction.”
Europeans have failed to identify their own interests in Afghanistan, which center on regional stability, energy supplies and migration, said Ulrich Speck, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. “Europeans ignore geopolitics at their own peril,” he said.
For instance, a new wave of migration could destabilize Turkey, which is already hosting nearly 4 million Syrian refugees, Speck said. That, in turn, he added, could bring new tensions with Greece and the rest of the European Union.
“The Europeans should not play the American role, but at least have consulted with one another about what we could do, even to help Kabul,” he said.
Carl Bildt, the former Swedish prime minister, went further, urging the U.S. and Europe to reconsider the wholesale withdrawal.
“I believe the U.S., E.U. and allies should commit to keeping a security force in Kabul until the Taliban agrees to a cease-fire and a political solution,” he said in a Twitter post. “To just cut and run is to endorse a military solution dictated by the Taliban.”
But there appear to be few volunteers at this stage.
The EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell Fontelles, issued a statement Thursday night calling on the Taliban to immediately resume talks with the Afghan government in Qatar and to respect human rights. Echoing State Department warnings, he said that “if power is taken by force and an Islamic Emirate re-established, the Taliban would face nonrecognition, isolation, lack of international support.”
But Europe has little leverage. There are obvious worries about how long the Afghan government will last; what will happen to women, girls, judges and the media under a renewed Taliban rule; and about a new wave of Afghan refugees.
Earlier this week, ministers from six countries — Germany, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Greece and Denmark — called for continuing deportations of Afghans whose asylum claims have been rejected.
But given the speed of the collapse, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and France have, for now, at least, stopped sending Afghans who do not qualify as refugees back to Afghanistan.
Few expect a repeat of the 2015 migration crisis, when more than 1 million people sought asylum and the resulting chaos boosted far-right and populist politics. But a large new flow from Afghanistan is likely to feed domestic anxieties, especially in Germany, which has elections next month.
Although the numbers are down, in 2020 Afghans were the second-largest country of origin for asylum-seekers arriving in the bloc, with some 50,000 applying, the European Asylum Support Office said. Fully 59% of applications from Afghans were accepted.
Some 1,200 Afghans have been returned so far this year, and only 200 of them did not return voluntarily, European officials told reporters Tuesday. But they said that in the last few months, at least 400,000 Afghans have become internally displaced, a number likely to rise considerably.
In Britain, which has a long history with Afghanistan and has had the second-largest number of casualties after the United States, there is more chagrin and even anger.
Lord David Richards, chief of defense from 2010-13, criticized his government for moving so quickly to evacuate Britons. He told BBC Newsnight that the evacuation “is a tacit — explicit, really — admission of a dismal failure of geostrategy and of statecraft.”
He said he had hoped to hear “an explanation for why we’re in this position, and then, an explanation on how they are going to avert this disaster.” Instead, he said, there was just “an admission of failure and a desire to pull people out.”
He added, “I’m almost ashamed that we’re in this position.”