BRUSSELS – The rapid unraveling of Afghanistan is already raising grumbles about US credibility, exacerbating the wounds of the Trump years and reinforcing the notion that America’s support for its allies is not unlimited.
The Taliban’s meteoric rise comes at a time when many in Europe and Asia had hoped that President Biden would restore America’s firm presence in international affairs, especially as China and Russia strive to expand their influence. Now America’s retreat will no doubt cast doubt.
“When Biden says ‘America is back,’ a lot of people will say, ‘Yes, America is back home,'” said François Heisbourg, a French defense analyst.
“Few will unite against the US for finally stopping a failed venture,” he said. “Most people would say it should have happened a long time ago,” but in the longer run, he added, “the idea that you can’t count on the Americans through Afghanistan will take root more deeply.”
The United States has withdrawn from military assignments abroad since President Obama, he noted, and under President Trump, “we had to prepare for a US that was no longer willing to take on the burden of unlimited liability alliances. “
That hesitation will now be felt all the more strongly among countries in the world such as Taiwan, Ukraine, the Philippines and Indonesia, which can only please China and Russia, analysts suggest.
“What made the US strong, powerful and rich was that from 1918 to 1991 and beyond, everyone knew we could rely on the US to defend and stand up for the free world,” said Tom Tugendhat, president of foreign affairs at the United States. the British Parliament. Commission.
“The sudden withdrawal from Afghanistan after 20 years and so much investment in lives and efforts will leave allies and potential allies around the world wondering whether to choose between democracies and autocracies, and realize that some democracies have run out of stamina,” he added. up.
In Asia, the US withdrawal and the impending collapse of the Afghan government were viewed with a mixture of resignation and trepidation.
“Most Asians have already considered it because it’s been a lengthy process, not a shock,” said Susan L. Shirk, director of the 21st Century China Center at the University of California, San Diego.
The country that raised the most concern was China, which shares a short, remote border with Afghanistan, which served under the Taliban as a haven for Uyghur extremists from Xinjiang, China’s far western province.
China, which routinely criticizes the United States for acting like a global belligerent, has warned that a hasty US withdrawal could cause instability in the region.
At the same time, China’s foreign ministry offered a public statement of support for the Taliban by holding talks for two days late last month with a delegation, including one of the movement’s founders, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.
The problem for America’s allies and others, however, is less “credibility,” a much misused term, than the ability to keep commitments to the end. And the world can seem like a more anarchic, less comprehensible place, he said Jean-Marie Guéhenno, former French and UN diplomat now at Columbia University.
“Afghanistan’s military debacle, which comes after Syria’s diplomatic debacle, will make Western countries look more inward, more cynical and nationalistic,” he said, “because they feel surrounded by a world they don’t control, but which they control. keep intruding.”
Still, mr. Guéhenno said Western democracies “should not adopt a doctrine of indifference to the fate of other people.”
Afghanistan was never particularly vital to Europe to begin with. NATO went to war there twenty years ago, only to show solidarity with the United States after 9/11.
But Afghanistan’s sudden collapse is another reminder of what can happen if Europe outsources decisions to Washington.
NATO countries let the Americans rule Afghanistan, even though they complained about a lack of consultation. For NATO, the mantra has always been “in together, out together”. When President Biden decided to pull the plug, NATO troops also began to leave in a hurry; there is little appetite to return.
Europe’s biggest concerns now are a new influx of Afghan migrants and a new safe haven from terrorism. But European terrorism has long been rooted closer to home, in North Africa, the Middle East and internal discontent.
The Biden administration has other problems and Europeans want Washington’s support on more important issues, such as climate change, Russia and China, said Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House, the London-based research institution.
“Biden will take a beating for lack of consultation with allies and piggybacking on a flawed Trump strategy,” Niblett said. “But there is much more to US soft power to gain from getting through the coronavirus crisis and focusing on vaccines for the world than by putting more effort into the survival of the Afghan government.”
Allies, especially Britain and Germany, were upset with the way the withdrawal was announced and saw it as a fait accompli, so there will be some residual damage, Mr Niblett said.
“But Europe will not give up on a Biden who believes in allies on the big issues that matter,” he said, adding: “This is where Biden is heading in the right direction.”
Europeans have failed to identify their own interests in Afghanistan, which focus on regional stability, energy supply and migration, said Ulrich Speck, senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. “Europeans ignore geopolitics at their peril,” he said.
For example, a new wave of migration could destabilize Turkey, which is already hosting nearly 4 million Syrian refugees, Mr Speck said. That, in turn, could spark new tensions with Greece and the rest of the European Union, he added.
“The Europeans should not be playing the American role, but at least have consulted with each other about what we could do, even to help Kabul,” he said.
Carl Bildt, the former Swedish Prime Minister, went further, urging the US and Europe to reconsider the wholesale withdrawal.
“I believe that the US, EU and allies should commit to keeping a security force in Kabul until the Taliban agrees to a ceasefire and a political solution,” he said in a Twitter post. “Just cut-and-run is adopting a military solution dictated by the Taliban.”
But there seem to be few volunteers at this stage.
Josep Borrell Fontelles, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, issued a statement on Thursday evening calling on the Taliban to immediately resume talks with the Afghan government in Qatar and to respect human rights. Following the warnings of the State Department, he said that “if power is taken by force and an Islamic emirate is restored, the Taliban will face non-recognition, isolation and lack of international support.”
But Europe has little influence. There are clear concerns 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 continued deportations of Afghans whose asylum applications have been rejected.
But given the speed of the collapse, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and France have at least stopped sending non-refugee Afghans back to Afghanistan for the time being.
Few expect a repeat of the 2015 migration crisis, when more than a million people sought asylum and the ensuing chaos boosted far-right and populist politics. But a big new flow from Afghanistan is likely to fuel domestic concerns, especially in Germany, where elections are to be held next month.
Although numbers are declining, in 2020 Afghans were the second largest country of origin for asylum seekers arriving in the bloc, with some 50,000 applications, the European Asylum Support Office says. As many as 59 percent of the applications from Afghans were accepted.
This year, some 1,200 Afghans have been returned so far, and only 200 of them have not returned voluntarily, European officials told reporters on Tuesday. But they said at least 400,000 Afghans have been internally displaced in recent months, a number likely to increase significantly.
In Britain, which has a long history with Afghanistan and has the second-largest number of casualties after the United States, there is more sadness and even anger.
Lord David Richards, head of defense from 2010 to 2013, criticized his government for evacuating the British so quickly. He told BBC Newsnight that the evacuation is “a tacit, explicit admission of a dismal failure of geostrategy and statecraft.”
He said he had hoped to hear “an explanation as to why we are in this position, and then an explanation as to how they are going to avert this disaster.” Instead, he said, there was simply “a recognition of failure and a desire to take people out.”
He added: “I am almost ashamed that we are in this position.”
Steven Lee Myers and Monika Pronczuk reported.