Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

The Real Reason U.S. Allies Are Upset About Afghanistan

| Aug. 27, 2021

The anger is real—but anguished humanitarianism is just part of it.

My last column pushed back at the chorus of doomsayers who insist that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan—including the disorderly manner in which it played out—had done vast and lasting damage to America's international position. No doubt some of these commentators genuinely believe their dire pronouncements, and the Islamic State-Khorasan attack on the Kabul airport is bound to intensify those feelings. Even so, I still find the hyperbole and over-the-top rhetoric remarkable. This week, I want to dig deeper and consider why so many people—and especially observers in Europe—appear to see this event as a pivotal moment.

In some cases, assume-the-worst analysis is easy to explain. It is entirely predictable that Republicans who oppose everything U.S. President Joe Biden is trying to accomplish are trying to milk the messy endgame for all the political capital it may be worth. It is equally unsurprising that unrepentant hard-liners and the many individuals who were directly involved in prosecuting (and losing) the war in Afghanistan are now defending their efforts and trying to pin the blame for the outcome on Biden alone. It might be more appropriate if those who repeatedly got this conflict wrong maintained a dignified silence, but that is clearly expecting too much of most VIP egos.

It is the commentary from others—and especially America's NATO allies—that I find most interesting and somewhat harder to explain. I understand their resentment at not being consulted (or not having their advice heeded), although such complaints have been a recurring feature of alliance relations since the dawn of time. I can also understand those who are genuinely troubled by the humanitarian consequences, even if this outcome was to be expected no matter when or how the United States ultimately left. It is the anguished tone—at times bordering on hysteria—that I find more mystifying. British Member of Parliament Tom Tugendhat declares the end of the war a "tragedy" that will only lead to more war and says the problem was the lack of patience—after 20 years!—as opposed to the lack of meaningful progress. Not to be outdone, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair declared the decision to end the war be "tragic, dangerous, unnecessary," a phrase that more aptly describes the 2003 Iraq War that he helped bring about.

They aren't alone. The conservative candidate for the German chancellorship, Armin Laschet, calls the withdrawal "the biggest debacle that NATO has suffered since its founding," which suggests he has not read much about the Suez affair in 1956 or the Kosovo War in 1999. The Economist magazine has indulged in an uncharacteristic orgy of recrimination, with headlines declaring the "fiasco" to be a "grave blow to America's standing" and a "turning-point." French President Emmanuel Macron reportedly chided Biden by phone to show greater "moral responsibility," conveniently ignoring the fact that France withdrew its own forces from Afghanistan way back in 2014, not to mention his speech from a week ago saying France needed to "protect itself from a wave of [Afghan] migrants." I could go on, but you get the idea.

As noted, some of this hand-wringing is appropriate, insofar as the outcome in Afghanistan contains no small amount of human tragedy. That was also true of the war itself, however, in which some quarter-million Afghans and Pakistanis (71,000 of them civilians), also died. I suspect it also reflects European frustrations at their inability to do very much to shape events there now, as well as their disappointment that the well-intentioned but unrealistic effort at nation-building in Afghanistan has now come to an unhappy end.  But one expects public officials to think as well as feel, and sober thought is what seems to be in short supply at the moment.....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“The Real Reason U.S. Allies Are Upset About Afghanistan.” Foreign Policy, August 27, 2021.

The Author

Stephen Walt