BARCELONA — Thanks to the chaotic, U.S.-led withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan that has ushered in the swift return of the Taliban to power, many Europeans are blasting President Biden as no less misguided and clueless than they believed his predecessor to be.
“In the big picture, Europeans are as angry as Americans about the tremendous loss of money and lives spent on the NATO mission in Afghanistan over the past two decades that now seems very difficult to justify,” Dave Keating, a Brussels-based journalist and senior fellow with the Atlantic Council, told Yahoo News.
They’re also angry, he said, “that they weren’t consulted about the withdrawal plan and were treated as an afterthought even though this was supposed to be a NATO joint endeavor.”
European leaders, Keating added, were “used to being abused, insulted and ignored by the Trump administration. So it came as little surprise when President Trump unilaterally negotiated a truce with the Taliban last year and set a withdrawal date of May 2021, contradicting the NATO policy of conditional withdrawal” from Afghanistan. They had hoped, however, “that President Biden would revisit that deal and work with European allies to formulate a better plan.”
For many in Europe, Biden’s inauguration signaled a fresh start for relations with the U.S. They openly applauded his many differences from his predecessor — his previous foreign policy experience, his diplomatic ease and his understanding of international relations. “Let me erase any lingering doubt,” the incoming president said in February during a virtual appearance with European leaders, “the United States will work closely with our European Union partners and capitals across the continent, from Rome to Riga, to meet the shared challenges we face.” He promptly rejoined the Paris climate agreement and the World Health Organization, and reaffirmed American’s commitment to NATO. He also unveiled a vaccination program that impressed the world.
But on Afghanistan, Biden drew criticism when he announced that he would follow through on Trump’s promise to bring back American troops from the quagmire of that country, where along with NATO’s International Security Assistance Force they had been trying to install and maintain democracy for 20 years. This week’s dramatic turn seemed only to cement that opposition, with reports Wednesday of the Taliban beating up protesters, including women, and threatening to attack news crews.
On Wednesday, former British Prime Minister Theresa May questioned what had happened and why the U.K., the first country to join the U.S. in 2001 in Operation Enduring Freedom, keeps blindly following its ally on the other side of the Atlantic. Chastising Biden for his assurance last month — followed by that of current Prime Minister Boris Johnson — that the Taliban was not in a position to reassert control of Afghanistan, May questioned the intelligence reports and the sentiments that had led the U.K., along with other European countries, to accept the American president’s assessments. “Did we really believe this?” she asked the House of Commons, which was called back for an emergency session to figure out what to do about Afghanistan. “Or did we just feel that we had to follow the U.S. and hope that on a wing and a prayer everything would be all right” when NATO troops, following the U.S. cue, pulled out and Afghanistan was left on its own.
Without mentioning him by name, German Chancellor Angela Merkel this week called the turmoil caused by Biden’s pullout of Afghanistan “bitter, dramatic and awful.” Armin Laschet, the head of Merkel’s party, who is believed likely to succeed her as Germany’s leader this fall, slammed the U.S.-led withdrawal as “the greatest debacle that NATO has seen since its foundation.”
After an emergency conference of the foreign ministers of the European Union’s 27 member countries, the EU’s chief diplomat, Josep Borrell, recommended recognizing the new Afghan government and opening up a dialogue with the Taliban immediately to avoid a “humanitarian and potential migratory disaster.” European leaders, meanwhile, are fretting about a flood of refugees across a continent that saw millions of Syrian refugees pour in six years ago during that country’s civil unrest; Boris Johnson has already volunteered to take 20,000 Afghan refugees into the U.K.
And not only are European leaders worried the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan will lead to more attacks by jihadis, but Europeans are also concerned about the continuing U.S. leadership of NATO, which forms the bulwark of united European defense. “U.S. dominance in NATO is a reality,” Marc Pierini, visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe specializing in Middle East affairs, told Yahoo News. He said Biden’s recent visit to the U.K., the European Union and NATO “raised hopes that the abrupt and often hostile behavior of former President Trump was a thing of the past. The lingering fear in Europe is that the U.S. might again opt for imposing its own decisions.”
Part of Europeans’ fears is simply a reflection of geography.
“The U.S. was willing to run the risk of exiting and letting the Taliban take over because Afghanistan is on the other side of the globe,” Joseph de Weck, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told Yahoo News. “Refugees won’t swim across the Atlantic to reach U.S. shores. It is Europe that will have to deal with the fallout.”
Roland Freudenstein, policy director at the Brussels-based think tank Martens Centre of European Studies, sums up the prevailing feeling of European leaders as deep concern. He told Yahoo News that there’s “consternation that, in some respects, Biden turned out to be an ‘America Firster’ in his own way, risking enormous international damage for a largely domestic reason.” There’s also consternation, he said, “at the lack of foresight and bad decision making after intelligence warnings and at the sudden collapse of the Afghan government. And there’s frustration, to be sure, about the European efforts wasted and lives lost — but some of the U.S. misjudgments have been shared by European leaders as well, in 2021 as well as in the 20 years before.”
And some of the apparent frustration at Biden and the U.S. appears to be sheer disappointment. “European leaders were shocked a number of times under the Trump administration by the lack of consultations with Europe before important decisions were taken,” said Pierini. “The same goes for the quick timing of the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Europeans were keen to help Afghans build up a solid state, but obviously the conditions weren’t there. Now they have to admit that a democratic state cannot be built by foreign assistance and foreign troops.”
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