Carl BildtCo-chair of the European Council on Foreign Relations
It’s too early to tell. There are, of course, lingering questions about whether there is a larger U.S. retreat in order for Washington to focus on China, and the consequences this might have, as well as questions on the robustness of consultations across the Atlantic.
The consequences this retreat will have for how the United States sees its role in the world is ultimately what will impact us—and that remains to be seen.
Ian BondDirector of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform
The UK entered the war in Afghanistan confident that it knew how to defeat insurgencies. After more than four hundred and fifty British deaths, it has left, chastened and with less appetite for involvement in distant conflicts. The rapid departure of U.S. forces, and the subsequent collapse of the Afghan government and fall of Kabul to the Taliban, should force a deeper policy reappraisal.
There are several lessons to learn:
Firstly, know who you are fighting against and who you are fighting with. The Taliban could not have won without popular support; government forces would not have lost with less corrupt, brutal, and unpopular leadership.
Secondly, don’t believe your own propaganda. France was pessimistic about the resilience of the Afghan government and started to withdraw its nationals and vulnerable Afghans early; the UK professed confidence in the government and left it too late to get everyone out.
Finally, don’t become too reliant on one ally, however powerful. When the House of Commons debated Afghanistan on August 18, 2021, even Conservative MPs argued that the UK should be less dependent on the United States. Yet Britain can’t afford to go it alone in defense and security; so it needs to work with a wider range of democratic partners, including those in Europe.
Thomas Kleine BrockhoffVice president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States and Director of its Berlin Office
Postwar Germany has never been a natural interventionist and participated rather hesitantly in military interventions—if at all. The Kabul debacle has provided traditional skeptics of military intervention with a welcome cause to make either pacifist or isolationist arguments. These arguments usually have a told-you-so quality and involve an ideal of a Germany that looks like a big Switzerland.
These critics do acknowledge that non-intervention can be a problem, too. Just take Syria. But they argue that military intervention will usually cause bigger challenges, whether these interventions are conducted on humanitarian grounds (Libya) or self-defense (Afghanistan) and whether they do include nation-building (Afghanistan) or not (Libya).
The chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan is certainly not helping the ongoing debate about Germany’s contribution to international security and the country’s role in the world.
In fact, the debate is regressing. Rather than engaging in an evaluation of the Afghanistan mission’s failures, the critics simply conclude that it is better not to intervene. Germany’s European and transatlantic partners are hopeful that the September 26 federal election could generate a mandate for the next German government to do more on the international stage. They will likely be disappointed.
Kate Hansen BundtSecretary General of the Norwegian Atlantic Committee
Norway had three objectives when participating in the international coalition: to support the United States and safeguard NATO’s continued relevance; to support the international fight against terror; and to help build a stable and democratic Afghanistan.
Being a good ally lies at the core of Norwegian security policy. Our dependence on NATO and especially U.S. support in a potential crisis shape our foreign and security policy.
Russia remains the defining factor in Norwegian security policy, and after twenty years out-of-area, Norway welcomes the return to the alliance’s principal task: promoting security and stability in the North Atlantic area.
However, valuable lessons have been learned in Afghanistan on intelligence sharing and joint operations as well as the need to watch out for “mission creep.”
The war on terror is no longer at the top of the security agenda in a world increasingly defined by great power competition and emerging security threats, such as cyber and hybrid attacks, AI, disruptive technology, disinformation, and climate change.
These threats, how they are reflected in NATO’s new strategic concept, and what role the United States will play in the alliance, will increasingly impact Norway’s foreign and security policy.
Marta DassùSenior Director of European Affairs at The Aspen Institute
The very short answer is no.
For the Mario Draghi government, the EU must become serious on European defense; but this effort must be carefully balanced with a renewed focus on transatlantic cooperation—which also implies refraining from direct criticisms of President Joe Biden’s administration. This remains Rome’s approach also after the chaotic ending to NATO’s mission to Afghanistan. Strategic autonomy, for Italy, means a more balanced NATO, with Europe able and willing to manage crises in its neighborhood.
And, after the Libyan debacle more than the Afghanistan one, Italy is aware that limited and targeted military deployments are a condition for geopolitical leverage in critical regions; joining Operation Takuba in the Sahel is a case in point.
Two important internal constraints, however, bear on this issue: budgetary constraints and ambivalent public support for military commitments.
Italy sees a potential opportunity post-Kabul, as well as a potential new challenge. The opportunity, despite all the difficulties, relates to its G20 presidency: engaging China and Russia on counterterrorism and the looming humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. The challenge is an additional migratory pressure: Italy has so far failed in ensuring European solidarity on this front. And this is where foreign policy becomes domestic politics.
Justyna GotkowskaCoordinator of the Regional Security Program at the Center for Eastern Studies, Warsaw
The Afghanistan debacle will only have an indirect effect on Poland’s security and defense policy. There is little discussion about the lessons learned for crisis management. If any, they rather confirm Polish thinking on the need to limit larger military interventions abroad that have yielded questionable results thus far and to concentrate on collective defense.
Poland does not support voices calling for creating a European intervention force in order to achieve more autonomy from the United States in conducting crisis management operations.
The Afghanistan debacle does, however, have an impact on how Poland perceives the Biden administration.
The withdrawal from Afghanistan is seen in the context of the shifting U.S. focus to global competition with China and Russia. However, the manner it was conducted in has raised additional questions—on top of those relating to the United States’ Nord Stream 2 deal with Germany—about the reliability of the Biden administration.
Together with the controversies around the rule of law and media freedom, which have resulted in frostier U.S.-Polish relations, this will have some impact on Poland’s security and defense policy. The priority of developing cooperation with the United States will remain, but Warsaw is increasingly looking to strengthen regional ties in security and defense with countries like Turkey and Romania.
Linas Linkevičiusformer foreign and defense minister of Lithuania
In short, Lithuania’s foreign and security policy will not be affected. We have always emphasized the importance and irreplaceability of strong transatlantic links. Now we can see that after the Afghanistan mission ended, more precisely after how it ended, we must all draw lessons from it and do so very seriously.
Twenty years of war and the first ever activation of NATO’s Article 5 at the request of the United States have placed a collective responsibility on us all. There was a constant refrain that we would come in together and leave together. However, gaps in coordination, proper consultation, and communication have been obvious. It doesn’t have to happen again.
On the other hand, it is worrying that the voices calling for Europeans to act autonomously are growing stronger. Some ideas that are being revived, like that of a European army, are unrealistic and damaging.
On both sides of the Atlantic, we must take a very responsible approach to all security-related ideas and in ways that counter those who favor isolation or the erosion of transatlantic ties. Breaking the alliance’s cohesion would be a far greater failure than the Afghan debacle.
Ignacio MolinaSenior analyst at the Elcano Royal Institute, Madrid
Before 2021, Spanish diplomacy already had a negative assessment of military operations that involve state-building efforts in complex countries.
The other two precedents of major Western missions in the last twenty-five years—Kosovo and Iraq—have been particularly controversial. Although international affairs issues are hardly politicized in Spain, both cases turned out to be a nightmare for political leaders and officials, ending with an abrupt withdrawal of troops.
With these precedents, what has happened in Afghanistan will hardly change a foreign and security policy that is wary of overly ambitious democratic peace operations. Spanish armed forces have continued to participate in missions abroad, but only those with a very specific scope, such as monitoring the Mediterranean Sea, counter-piracy off the Horn of Africa, and supporting some Sahel countries in peacekeeping and counterterrorism missions.
From a more long-term perspective, for Madrid this Euroatlantic debacle will serve to highlight two important problems: firstly, the weakness of the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), not to mention its Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP); and secondly, the fact that the United States—even with Donald Trump out of the White House—continues to take unilateral decisions without consulting its European allies. But this does not mean change in Spanish foreign and security policy, either.
Kristi RaikDirector of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute
Not really, although it has caused a lot of reflection. From the Estonian perspective, the U.S. contribution to defense and deterrence with regard to Russia remains indispensable in the foreseeable future. This is not changed by the failure of the United States—and NATO collectively—in Afghanistan. There are even some hopes that leaving Afghanistan would allow the United States to focus more on other priorities—above all China and the Indo-Pacific, but also Russia.
At the same time, the need for Europeans to strengthen their defense capabilities and political resolve to take more responsibility for their own security is well known, but it is a painfully slow process, as the example of Germany shows.
The Baltic states continue to see NATO as the primary framework for strengthening European defense. The debate on European strategic autonomy, once again activated by the Afghanistan debacle, does not address the most important security concerns of the Baltic countries.
Afghanistan has also raised questions about whether such state-building missions are meaningful and worth the effort, resources, and loss of human lives, including, in the Afghanistan case, nine Estonians who served in the mission. Yet the dominant view in Estonia stresses the value of participation for the sake of the country’s relations with key allies.
Sten RynningProfessor of Political Science and Public Management at the University of Southern Denmark
The debacle in Afghanistan will mark a turn to orthodoxy in Danish foreign and security policy: an embrace of NATO as the anchor of hard security policy and U.S. engagement; a desire to pursue soft developmental and stabilization policy via the EU; and an inability to consider Europe as part of Danish and collective defense needs.
Naturally, Denmark has been dismayed by the lack of U.S. consultation and coordination in the retreat from Kabul, but the idea that Europe should respond by getting its act together is rekindling Denmark’s longstanding political skepticism of EU federalism.
Denmark has an EU defense opt-out and no political intention whatsoever of challenging it (in a referendum). More seriously, Denmark has no political imagination to speak of when it comes to European defense leadership and how Europe might develop the military muscle that would effectively renew the transatlantic partnership.
Denmark is more comfortable separating military (NATO) from developmental (EU) affairs and then cultivating its status as a privileged U.S. ally—bolstered by the kingdom’s Arctic territory, notably Greenland. How this can help rebalance and renew the transatlantic alliance is not clear, and Denmark is not about to offer answers.
Ben TonraProfessor at the University College Dublin School of Politics and International Relations
No, but it has encouraged debate about military capacity and fed into the work of the Commission on the Future of the Defence Forces, which is due to report at the end of the year.
The deployment of nine members of the Irish Army’s special forces’ Army Ranger Wing (ARW)—along with two diplomats from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT)—to coordinate the return of Irish citizens highlighted (again) serious deficiencies. In the event, the successful operation, launched just seven days in advance of the August 31 deadline, secured the repatriation of twenty-six out of a total of thirty-six citizens and their dependents.
However, in the absence of any Irish strategic airlift capacity, the Emergency Civil Assistance Team (ECAT) had to rely on EU partners France and Finland as well as the UK for deployment, extraction, and outbound flights for repatriates.
In terms of foreign policy, Ireland’s positionas UN Security Council chair this month, has foregrounded Irish commitments on gender, with the ambassador insisting that the rights of women and girls was a red line issue and Irish diplomats working with colleagues, most notably Mexico and Norway, to insert language into UN statements on the defense of women’s political rights in Afghanistan.
Pierre VimontSenior fellow at Carnegie Europe
To many, the Afghan debacle sounds like a vindication of France’s diplomacy.
On Afghanistan itself, France was the first NATO ally to end its mission as early as 2014. It was also among the first nations to kickstart the evacuation operations from Kabul last May. The French insistence on reinforcing European defense capacities may well gather a new momentum as the Afghan crisis has shown a weaker US commitment to defend its allies.
Yet, as the French military presence in the Sahel region, supported by several EU members, risks morphing into another forever war, there may be a need for change with lessons to be learned from the Afghan experience.
The French military intervention in Mali is not comparable to the Afghan case. But so far the response by the EU coalition to the regional jihadist threats, combining counter-insurgency operations and nation-building efforts, is giving mixed results.
More involvement of regional African leaders, closer attention to the genuine needs of the local population, and a cautious peace dialogue with the least radical jihadist groups could drive a more effective policy. It would also show that the West is still capable of making peace and is not on an irreversible slope to decline.
Rob de WijkDirector of The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies
In a bid to curb the growth of extreme parties, the moderate parties took over their anti-European positions. Consequently, over the years, the Netherlands became Euroskeptic. Surprisingly, in her 2020 Defence Vision 2035 the Dutch Minister for Defense made a very strong statement in favor of European defense cooperation. NATO will remain important, but acting unanimously “is no longer a given. Europe has to be able to act more independently, but cannot yet do so.”
Thanks to former president Donald Trump, America’s pivot to Asia, and the recognition that American and European interests do not necessarily align, realism has entered Dutch politics.
Believers in the transatlantic cause hoped that under President Joe Biden, everything would return to normal. But Biden explicitly mentioned China as a reason for leaving Afghanistan, thus indicating that the pivot to Asia was here to stay.
Moreover, Biden said that nation-building has never been an objective. But for many Europeans, this was the main reason for deploying troops in Afghanistan.
Biden’s rhetoric, the way he ended American involvement, and the excellent cooperation between the Netherlands and Germany during the disastrous final days of the Afghan war accelerated the shift in foreign and defense policy as spelled out in the Defence Vision 2035.
This blog is part of the Transatlantic Relations in Review series. Carnegie Europe is grateful to the U.S. Mission to the EU for its support.