27 Aug 21. Since 2001, the United States and its NATO allies and partners had been heavily committed in Afghanistan, where more than 3,500 of their soldiers paid the ultimate sacrifice. It is therefore not surprising that the rapid fall of Kabul sent shockwaves across Europe and stirred an intense debate among European leaders about its implications for the transatlantic partnership.
In the United Kingdom, during an extraordinary session of the House of Commons on Afghanistan, Conservative lawmaker James Sunderland remarked, “The fall of Kabul, like Suez, has shown that the United Kingdom may not be able to operate autonomously without U.S. involvement.” Sunderland was not the first to use this historical analogy to convey the sense of disillusion and anger prevailing in London, with British defense secretary Ben Wallace calling it a “failure of the international community.” Armin Laschet, leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and candidate to succeed Angela Merkel, went further, declaring this “the biggest debacle that NATO has suffered since its founding.”
While such emotional sentiments reflect the frustration and anger of the present and may soften over time, the withdrawal from Afghanistan is likely to have both immediate and long-term effects on Europe, NATO, and transatlantic relations.
In Together, Out Together
When President Biden announced in April 2021 his intent to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021, many European countries felt presented with a fait accompli, having more forces on the ground than the United States but being dependent on them nonetheless. They were not so much consulted as informed of the U.S. decision, which was driven by domestic political considerations rather than conditions on the ground. The decision undermined NATO’s “in together, out together” mantra and left Europeans with no alternative but to depart together with the United States.
In the near term, many European countries fear that the hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan will have destabilizing effects that directly impact their security interests. With the collapse of the Afghan government, European leaders are preparing for the worst. In an address to the nation, French president Macron underlined that Europeans will need to prevent the rise of international terrorist groups in Afghanistan and prepare themselves for a flow of irregular migration. Others worry about an increase in illegal drug trade, or a resurgence of populism in Europe because of the migration pressure. While the United States will also be dealing with these effects, the reality of geography puts Europe on the front line.
Not a Near-Death Experience for NATO
The unmitigated chaos in Kabul has spurred a larger debate among Europeans about the implications for NATO and U.S. credibility in the world. Some anticipate a confidence crisis that could impact the future of NATO, while others fear that the collapse of Afghanistan could be “America’s Suez moment,” signaling the end of its global leadership role.
These predictions seem exaggerated and far-fetched. What is happening in Kabul is unlikely to impact the strength of NATO’s Article 5 commitment or the need for allies to work together on shared challenges. Rather than weakening the U.S. commitment to NATO, the turmoil in Afghanistan may force Washington to work harder to demonstrate that U.S. support to its alliances is steadfast. In a recent interview on Afghanistan, President Biden reiterated that he “made a sacred commitment to Article Five.” Likewise, Europeans are unlikely to turn their back on the transatlantic partnership as they need Washington to deal with pressing challenges such as managing strategic competition with Russia and China, navigating the post-pandemic global recovery, and leading the fight against climate change.
Powerless Europe, Exhausted America
Actually, the Afghanistan crisis reveals several inconvenient truths for the transatlantic relationship. For Europeans, it has exposed both their inability to change the decision calculus of the United States and powerlessness to defend their own interests (e.g., evacuate their own citizens and allies) without the support of Washington. For the United States, it has demonstrated that, even as it looks to Europe to take on more responsibility for security and defense in its own neighborhood, most European countries still lack the political will and capabilities to do so.
Defense Secretary Wallace recently shared that London tried to form a coalition of “like-minded” countries to maintain the mission in Afghanistan but rapidly came to the conclusion that this was inconceivable without the critical enablers provided by Washington, notably its air support. “We must realize 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,” underlined Chancellor Angela Merkel. “We always said that we are basically dependent on the decisions of the U.S. government.” While some European politicians lament this situation, the poor state of European armed forces should not come as a surprise after decades of disinvestment in defense, which led to major force readiness and capability gaps from air-to-air refueling to intelligence assets or strategic transport.
This is not the first time the United States has shown its desire to step away from a leadership role in overseas engagements. During the Libyan intervention in 2011, the Obama administration stated its intent to “lead from behind,” leaving Europeans in the driver’s seat. European countries participating in the mission, starting with France and the United Kingdom, nonetheless faced major operational limitations, with the United States providing 80 percent of refueling support. President Obama’s reluctance to enforce the “red line” on the Syrian regime after the chemical attack in Ghouta in 2013 also came as a shock in Europe, especially to France, which was ready to intervene but unable to do so on its own. Most recently, the unilateral decision of the Trump administration in 2019 to withdraw U.S. troops from northeast Syria, making way for a Turkish unilateral incursion into the area, was highly criticized by London and Paris.
A Unifying Moment for Europeans?
Support for a more autonomous European security and defense capability is gradually increasing among Europeans. A poll published after the election of President Biden revealed that at least 60 percent of respondents in every European country now believe that they “cannot always rely on the United States to defend them.” Interestingly, this figure hits 66 percent in Denmark, 69 percent in Poland, and 74 percent in the United Kingdom, countries that have traditionally resisted a more autonomous European security and defense capability.
While the Afghan crisis will likely reinforce Europe’s desire to have more independence of action, Europeans have a long road ahead before being able to act autonomously any time they need. On the positive side, defense budgets in Europe have been consistently increasing since 2015, and ambitious initiatives have been launched to spur collaborative armament projects or reinforce collective operational readiness. With the fall of Kabul, the call for more European strategic capabilities is now heard not only in Paris but also in London. “We can set out a vision for reinvigorating our European NATO partners to make sure we’re not dependent on a single ally, on the decision of a single leader,” proposed Conservative lawmaker Tom Tugendhat during the debate at the Commons.
This change of tone is an opportunity to rebuild bridges between the United Kingdom and its European partners after years of tensions due to Brexit. Despite close defense ties, the Franco-British relationship is now in a terrible state, hampering any major progress in the bilateral cooperation. In the wake of the Afghan crisis, Paris and London are now closely coordinating over the evacuation operations as well as on counterterrorism. Beyond Afghanistan, the United Kingdom and its European partners should also foster their cooperation on shared security challenges in Europe’s neighborhood, including Russia, the Sahel, and the Middle East.
The Future of Transatlantic Cooperation
In addition to the effects the Afghanistan crisis might have on Europe is the question of how it might change NATO and transatlantic cooperation. Former UK prime minister Theresa May called for a “reassessment of how NATO operates,” echoing President Macron’s plea for reforming the transatlantic alliance.
One likelihood is that this experience will accelerate NATO’s focus away from out-of-area crisis management and toward collective defense. Even prior to the Afghanistan crisis, allies’ political will to participate in costly, open-ended missions outside of NATO’s area of responsibility was decreasing. Since 2014, NATO has refocused on collective defense, and several allies have simultaneously doubled down on national security priorities (e.g., France on terrorism and Italy on managing the consequences of illegal migration). As a result, any future out-of-area missions may have a smaller footprint and be low intensity.
Allies are also likely to be more discerning about when and under what conditions they join operations, particularly when they will be dependent on U.S. assets. They may seek more specifics on the duration, end-states, and exit plan of a mission; seek assurances in terms of support; or demand a greater say in shaping or leading the mission. A sense of obligation or loyalty to the United States will no longer be enough to generate forces. This is already perceptible in Iraq where Europeans are ready to take more responsibility in NATO’s training mission on the condition that Washington maintains some degree of military backing (e.g., force protection, airlift, and intelligence).
Finally, allies may gravitate toward more agile coalitions of the willing. While NATO’s consensus-based decisionmaking and established force generation processes were once preferred because they lent unity of purpose and staying power to a mission, working through NATO may now be viewed as at once more cumbersome and less flexible.
If the fall of Kabul is often described as a “Saigon moment” for the Biden administration, especially after the dramatic recent terrorist attacks in Kabul, it could also be seen as a new “Suez moment” for Europeans and NATO as the crisis brings to light the limitations of Europe’s strategic ambitions and the need for adaptation in NATO. While this crisis is unlikely to jeopardize the transatlantic alliance, it could serve as another cautionary tale for both Europeans and the United States as they embark in a revision of NATO’s strategic concept.
Rachel Ellehuus is deputy director and senior fellow with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Pierre Morcos is a visiting fellow with the CSIS Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program.
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