Afghanistan’s crisis underscores the U.S.’s shifting place in the world
“Let me speak clearly and bluntly. This is a catastrophe,” said Josep Borrell, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, in an address Thursday to the European Parliament. He echoed the widespread dismay felt by policymakers and politicians across the continent over the sudden Taliban takeover in Afghanistan — and the Biden administration’s military withdrawal that preceded it. Many of the United States’ NATO partners in Europe had invested considerable manpower and resources in the American-led war and nation-building project in Afghanistan, though on a smaller scale than Washington. For some, participating in the U.S.-led mission conferred a significant degree of post-Cold War prestige.
Now, European onlookers are shocked to see the fruits of their labor seemingly vanish in the space of a few harrowing days. Across the pond, a defiant White House has doubled down on its decision-making, showing little contrition for its role in the chaotic scenes unfolding in Kabul.
“I say this with a heavy heart and with horror over what is happening, but the early withdrawal was a serious and far-reaching miscalculation by the current administration,” Norbert Röttgen, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the German parliament, told Politico. “This does fundamental damage to the political and moral credibility of the West.”
Röttgen’s British counterpart, conservative parliamentarian Tom Tugendhat, cast the Afghan government’s implosion and the Taliban’s surge into power as an epochal blow. “Afghanistan is the biggest foreign policy disaster since Suez,” he tweeted, referring to the 1956 crisis over control of the strategic Egyptian canal that, to some historians, marked the ultimate waning of the British Empire. “We need to think again about how we handle friends, who matters and how we defend our interests.”
That may include reevaluating the role of the United States. Tobias Ellwood, another Tory parliamentarian, who chairs the Defense Committee in the House of Commons, questioned President Biden’s repeated insistence that his administration was bringing America “back” on the world stage after the disruptive, petty nationalism of the Trump years. “How can you say America is back when we’re being defeated by an insurgency armed with no more than [rocket-propelled grenades], land mines and AK-47s?” Ellwood said to my colleague Liz Sly.
In Washington, much of the national security establishment is wheeling on the White House. The Biden administration, critics argue, should not have been caught so off guard by the speed of the Taliban advance or so eager to proceed with the withdrawal despite warnings from the intelligence community and the Pentagon. It should not have placed such naive faith in a political process that the Trump administration initiated with the Taliban, which sidelined the weak Afghan government in Kabul. And it should not have been so complacent about planning ahead for the evacuation of U.S. citizens and Afghan allies, and so seemingly callous about the Afghan plight after Taliban fighters marched into Kabul.
“The swift fall of Kabul recalls the ignominious fall of Saigon in 1975,” wrote Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. “Beyond the local consequences — widespread reprisals, harsh repression of women and girls, and massive refugee flows — America’s strategic and moral failure in Afghanistan will reinforce questions about U.S. reliability.”
For Biden, though, it seems the question of U.S. “reliability” in Afghanistan is not the main priority. “My dad used to have an expression,” Biden told ABC News in an interview this week, in which he discussed how the center of gravity for Islamist extremist threats had shifted away from the country that incubated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. “If everything is equally important to you, nothing is important to you. We should be focusing on where the threat is the greatest.”
In Biden’s telling, that includes maintaining the United States’ sprawling and largely clandestine web of counterterrorism operations from Central Asia to West Africa. But it also means pulling the United States out of a seemingly interminable counterinsurgency and nation-building effort in Afghanistan that yielded neither a stable Afghan government nor a cohesive Afghan military. Instead, as internal U.S. government documents show, the United States enabled a kleptocratic state rife with corruption.
“The dramatic meltdown of Afghanistan’s army only exposes the rot that had been festering in Kabul’s halls of power for years,” wrote Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution. “No wonder the Afghan population trusted its government so little, and no wonder one Afghan city after another surrendered to the Taliban this week.”
Biden’s announcement of a military withdrawal earlier this year already reflected an impatience with the Afghan status quo and a recognition that some accommodation had to be found with the Taliban — no matter how reprehensible their views or brutal their practices. That process was well underway before Biden came to power, as the Trump administration pressed Kabul to come to terms with the militants.
“Only a small cadre in Washington could make a two-decade war sound like bloodless equilibrium,” wrote Stephen Wertheim, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Instead, he argued, Biden did something more radical: He accepted defeat.
“Only by accepting defeat can the country mourn the precious lives lost and resources squandered, including the Afghan women and girls betrayed by promises of a Taliban-free future that no one could keep,” Wertheim added. “Only by accepting defeat can U.S. leaders level with the American public, which strongly supports withdrawal, and begin to repair decades of mistrust.”
Indeed, despite the disappointment of foreign allies and disbelief of Washington savants, the White House appears to be counting on public attitudes outside the Beltway bubble. According to a new AP-NORC poll, 6 in 10 Americans believe the war in Afghanistan was not worth fighting. It also found that more Americans are concerned about domestic extremist threats than those originating outside the country. (On cue, a man with apparent far-right views who claimed to have a bomb in his pickup truck was arrested Thursday by U.S. Capitol Police after a protracted standoff in the heart of Washington.)
To that end, Biden and his allies harp on the idea of a “foreign policy for the middle class,” tethered to a kind of nation-building populism at home. Critics may see Afghanistan as the death knell for Biden’s lofty rhetoric about human rights and democracy, as the United States stands by while the Taliban sets about reversing a generation of progress for Afghan women and girls. But proponents of withdrawal may counter that the United States can better serve the cause of liberal democracy by refocusing its agenda, shifting to reckon with authoritarian China and to bolster a deeply polarized society at home.
In an essay for the Economist, Stanford University political theorist Francis Fukuyama suggested that the horrors on view in Kabul may mark a “major juncture in world history, as America turned away from the world.” But in truth, he continues, “the end of the American era had come much earlier.”
The war in Afghanistan took place during a narrow period of unquestioned American hegemony on the world stage. That age may be over now, and U.S. leadership is pivoting to meet a new one. “The long-term sources of American weakness and decline are more domestic than international,” wrote Fukuyama. “The country will remain a great power for many years, but just how influential it will be depends on its ability to fix its internal problems, rather than its foreign policy.”