America’s allies in Europe understood months before President Joe Biden’s fateful April speech to the American people that a full and complete US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan was a very real possibility.
Biden talked about the urgency of getting the United States out of what he termed ‘forever war’ conflicts which required tens of billions of dollars a year (not to mention thousands of US troops on the ground) to maintain. Indeed, anybody who bothered to pay attention to Biden’s words for even a moment recognised the phrase was intrinsically tied to the war in Afghanistan, which had outlasted three consecutive presidents, resulted in the deaths of over 2,440 US troops, caused tens of thousands of Afghan casualties (a conservative estimate), and trillions of dollars. Biden had no intention of leaving the White House with US forces still on the ground, fighting a war on behalf of an Afghan government that has since proved to be even weaker, demoralised, and incompetent than most experts imagined.
Just because Washington’s Nato allies knew the decision was coming, however, doesn’t mean they are especially pleased with the execution. There isn’t much to like about how the US withdrawal has proceeded. Thousands of Afghans have been bottled up at Kabul airport and Taliban fighters are prancing around on exercise equipment in the Afghan presidential palace. US lawmakers aren’t the only ones unhappy with the way things have turned out. Across the Atlantic, European politicians are highly critical of what they call botched planning. Norbert Rottgen, the chairman of the German parliament’s foreign relations committee, even claimed that what’s unfolding in Afghanistan ‘does fundamental damage to the political and moral credibility of the West.’
Rottgen is referring to how the troop withdrawal impacts Afghanistan’s security situation. What he should be concerned about, however, is what the Afghanistan withdrawal demonstrates about Europe’s overall power in the international system – that of a relatively hapless bystander more interested in expressing grievances than taking independent action.
Many would dispute this description and perhaps be offended by it. After all, hundreds of thousands of European troops rotated in and out of Afghanistan for multiple tours of duty over the last 20 years, some of whom were killed in the field alongside US troops. Yet the valiant sacrifice of European soldiers isn’t the issue here; the issue, rather, is Europe’s almost total dependency on the US in the military domain. The fact is that even if some of Europe’s heads-of-state strongly disagreed with the US decision to leave Afghanistan and wanted to retain a residual presence there (something Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said there wasn’t any interest in), this would be all but impossible without the US providing the support infrastructure, logistics, strike aircraft, and intelligence network necessary for the task. Nato, which the US has carried on its shoulders since the dawn of the alliance in the late 1940s, would in effect be a paper tiger in Afghanistan without Washington’s participation – a damning indictment if there ever was one.
Afghanistan, unfortunately, isn’t an exception. More than a decade ago, the air war against Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi was supposed to be a sort of new dawn for Nato, a mission that would illustrate to Washington that the alliance could plan, execute, and sustain offensive combat operations without the US acting as the parent and supervisor. This was by design; the Obama administration made it clear to European nations like France that the US expected Europe to take the lead. As Obama recounted to the Atlantic in 2016, ‘we need Europeans and Gulf countries to be actively involved in the coalition; we will apply the military capabilities that are unique to us, but we expect others to carry their weight.’
Regrettably, it quickly became apparent the Europeans simply couldn’t maintain an air campaign, even against a third-rate power in Libya. Days after Nato took over the operation, a shortage of combat aircraft nearly derailed the campaign plan. The UK, France, and other participating European militaries started running out of precision-guided munitions weeks later, which forced the US to open up its own stocks in order to ensure the war effort could continue. The bottom line: without Uncle Sam, Europe would be twitching like a fish out of water.
It has taken decades for most of Europe’s politicians to pay sufficient attention to this problem. Yet they now suddenly find themselves shocked and angry about the continent’s lack of leadership and capability, as if this issue happened overnight. ‘What does it say about Nato if we are entirely dependent on a unilateral decision taken by the United States,’ Theresa May asked British Prime Minster Boris Johnson during a special House of Commons session on August 18.
The answer is self-evident: it says the Europeans better stop whining about US decisions and begin taking responsibility for its own. Otherwise, it has no basis to complain.