For the last twenty years, the United States and its allies have been fighting in and occupying Afghanistan. The war aimed to root out and destroy the terrorist group Al-Qaeda, responsible for the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attack on the United States, which killed just under 3,000 people. The war cost trillions of dollars, pounds and Euros, and thousands of lives (over 6,000 U.S. and 1,000 NATO troops, in addition to 100,000 Afghans) in an attempt to stabilise and reshape the country and deny terrorist groups a stable base of operations.
However, with little success to show for the gargantuan effort, the United States’ decision to leave Afghanistan and how the withdrawal was carried out has led to harsh criticism. Many allied forces, both in Asia and Europe, have wondered out loud whether the US is willing to defend them and commit to shared security. NATO, a near 80-year-old alliance, is primarily concerned as Europe faces the brunt of threats such as Russian expansion and terrorist activities. Therefore, the U.S.’ actions have led many to ask: does the manner of the US’ withdrawal from Afghanistan threaten NATO solidarity?
In one sense, the withdrawal from Afghanistan does strain the Trans-Atlantic Alliance. Its relative proximity (Europe is far closer to Afghanistan than the U.S) and land routes may lead to an influx of migrants to Europe, which could replicate the domestic unrest created by the 2015 migrant crisis. Similarly, there is some worry that the chaos could lead to an increase in terrorist activities. Currently, hundreds of thousands of people are expected to flee Afghanistan, fearing for their lives as the Taliban punish those who fought against them or force women into a life of fear as they strip them of their rights.
Similarly, the withdrawal has called into question the United States’ resolve. For instance, the Baltic countries are worried about whether the U.S. might respect Article 5 of the NATO treaty if Russia launched an invasion. Their primary fear is Russian invasion or even cyber attacks that threaten their security. Further, NATO members such as France have called the alliance “brain dead”, questioning both its role and importance. In a recent speech, President Biden made glancing references to NATO, seemingly confirming the organisation as peripheral to US leaders in their strategic thinking. At the same time, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson had to wait nearly two days to get Biden on the phone following the latter’s unilateral decision to withdraw from Afghanistan.
But the main reason for souring relations over Afghanistan is simply down to poor communication and consultation. NATO allies have felt they had little option in staying or leaving, as they depend on U.S. infrastructure for their combat missions. Though the U.S. has communicated what they were going to do, they never consulted NATO allies. The confusing nature of NATO-U.S. communication is emphasised by Jen Stoltenberg’s comments on the matter. Stoltenberg claims that the U.S. consulted with partners but noted that there was not much European NATO members could do once the US had made up its mind. Had the US been more receptive to European concerns, they may have gone about the withdrawal differently.
Ultimately, many allies feel left out of US strategic decision-making. NATO allies have not voiced their concerns and how the withdrawal would potentially impact their security. However, grand strategy may be an essential reason for NATO solidarity to remain in place in this instance. Current US interests as well as past precedents suggest that NATO allies and the United States will stay close and continue to face mutual threats together.
The withdrawal from Afghanistan is a move to end a draining war and refocus on great power competition. For NATO allies, that does not simply mean the US will solely focus on China. Russian revanchism and the nation’s re-emergence as a great power threat are firmly on the dashboard of American strategists and thinkers. Russian cyberattacks and influence in elections pose a credible threat to the United States. Ultimately, ending a multi-trillion dollar war that has caused thousands of deaths is better for the long term reorientation towards China and Russia, which will do more to ensure the security of NATO members.
Further, there is a historical precedent that suggests NATO solidarity will remain intact. For instance, the United States committed vast resources to the war in Vietnam, in which all of the Pacific allies participated. The hasty and chaotic withdrawal did not weaken its alliances; instead, it allowed the US to re-prioritise its resource allocation and better focus on containing the USSR’s expansion. A similar scenario may unfold now, as the US recalculates where it is needed most: in Europe and Asia, countering Russian and Chinese aggression. To do this, the United States will seek to strengthen its NATO alliance while also expanding its capability into a global rather than regional role.
The withdrawal from Afghanistan has undoubtedly tarnished the U.S.’ reputation, and it will need to show support for NATO allies by recommitting to and strengthening its role in Europe’s defence. Speeches and empty assurances will no longer suffice. Ultimately, NATO will prove vital to the US and vice-versa, as the alliance is a central pillar in the budding multipolar geopolitical landscape. At the same time, the U.S. is still crucial to Europe’s defence, and the two will continue to work together to ensure global stability and peace.