Updated: Sep 3, 2021
“Washington consulted the Taliban, but informed the Allies. At least that’s how it seemed to us.”
The man on the phone is a retired NATO diplomat I know well, and with whom I worked in both Kandahar and Kabul. He was one of perhaps two or three Westerners I encountered in the decade I was there who — even from inside the reinforced walls of the institutions they represented — developed an uncanny feel for local conditions.
“It seems the Biden Administration has the same contempt for NATO as Trump did,” he adds.
The repercussions of the way two decades’ involvement in Afghanistan is ending will fall most heavily on Afghans, of course, on millions of men, women, and children who believed in the international project for their country, or experienced its unintended consequences. Those repercussions will also affect the United States, in ways not yet apparent.
And what about our European allies? What about other friendly countries whose soldiers pulled security around our bases, or patrolled on foot up the steep, rock-strewn paths of Urozgon or Herat Provinces, or that contributed their citizens’ tax money to reconstruction projects in a war that was a far greater concern of ours than of theirs?
When those hijacked airplanes slammed into the Twin Towers, changing the world, I was in Paris, back from a reporting trip to the Balkans. Returning home from an errand, I switched on the radio.
Abruptly, I felt my ears lock on to the presenter’s voice. What it was saying didn’t make sense. Airplanes? A skyscraper, collapsed in downtown New York? With people inside? Surely this was a hoax. Or maybe I had tuned in to a radio play.
I leaped for the television. It was no joke.
Grabbing my microphone, I stumbled out into the street, to cover the French reaction, and for my own solace. I heard — I felt — the massive, ancient bells of Notre Dame Cathedral weightily tolling the dirge. The oldest and deepest, the great bell Emmanuel, is only rung in the most momentous circumstances. It shook the ground.
At the U.S. Embassy, I interviewed people who were waiting in line to sign the book of condolences. Some were in tears. I read beautiful inscriptions in the book, the memories of U.S. bravery and kindness in World War II, the promises to repay that debt.
In the days after the attacks of September 2001, NATO — the military alliance the United States helped build after World War II to protect Europe from a potentially expansionist Soviet Union — activated its most sacred engagement. “An armed attack against one or more [members] in Europe or in North America shall be considered an attack against them all.” In the end it was not Europe that needed protecting, but the United States. For the first time in NATO’s history the Allies put themselves at a member’s disposal. Ours.
At first, as I remember it, U.S. officials were grateful for the solidarity, but declined the offer. ‘Thanks, but we can manage very well on our own.’ That is the gist that I recall.
It did not take long, however, for Washington to reverse course. As the need for more presence across Afghanistan’s varied and difficult terrain became obvious, and as the U.S. stretched itself impossibly thin by invading Iraq, NATO allies were handed responsibility for some of the most challenging parts of the country. In the Taliban’s original heartland, the south where I lived, Canada, Great Britain, and the Netherlands rotated in and out of overall command, with each country contributing a permanent task force for one of the provinces.
I have had hard words on occasion for the way some of those countries’ officials handled situations they confronted. But under U.S. aegis, it was practically impossible to promulgate an independent approach to either of the problems that mattered: Afghan government corruption and the role of Pakistan. (See “The Ides of August.”)
In the summer of 2009, I watched Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s tight-knit command group roll into ISAF headquarters in Kabul. I watched officers such as intelligence chief Mike Flynn publicly insult their NATO colleagues. U.S. colonels were put into position under European superiors; and an all-U.S. command structure took shape behind an Allied facade.
I had been a French resident for fifteen years by then. I felt comfortable with Europeans, and they with me. I heard the bitterness in humiliated officers’ voices.
A dozen years later, at the decisive moment we've just been through: how did Washington treat its Allies? How did U.S. decision-makers work with that handful of countries in the world that most exemplify the stated American ideals of equity, free expression and free markets, democratic governance and (at last) some concern for the environment? How did the U.S. engage with partners that have lost hundreds of their own soldiers and aid workers in Afghanistan, countries that still had personnel and local employees and development projects underway on the ground? How did the Biden Administration treat that band of brother-countries that emerged together from the unspeakable trials of World War II, and with which it promised to restore ties?
It took them completely by surprise.
“A NATO foreign and defense ministers’ meeting was scheduled for April 14, specifically to discuss the way ahead on Afghanistan,” the retired diplomat recounts. “It’s a big deal to have foreign and defense ministers coming together in a single gathering.” They had a case to make.
It’s not as though Allied governments weren’t aware of President Joe Biden’s long opposition to the war in Afghanistan. It's not as though they weren't aware that his predecessor, Donald Trump had promised to be out by May. Still, given the situation — given the deadly Taliban attacks that had continued unabated despite the Doha agreement negotiated by Trump's envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, and given the unfair concessions that agreement forced on the Afghan government, which had not even been allowed to participate in the talks — Allied officials seemed to think a final withdrawal would be postponed.
“They expected that Biden would indicate that the Taliban had not fulfilled their end of the agreement, that they were untrustworthy, and that the Alliance would remain until the Afghan government was truly in the lead in the negotiating process. They thought a total withdrawal in a matter of months was irresponsible. They thought their voice would be listened to, because under the Biden Administration, America was supposed to be ‘back.’ They thought this meeting would be a genuine consultation.”
And what happened? On April 13, the day before the meeting whose purpose was to reach a joint agreement on how to wind down the intervention, the Washington Post ran a story: “Biden Will Withdraw All U.S. Forces from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021.” NATO leaders were "stunned," says the diplomat, to read about a decision in the press that was made on behalf of the Alliance without their input.
"In April I made a decision to end this war," confirmed Biden in remarks on August 31. (Italics mine.)
Faced with a fait accompli, the Allies agreed to begin pulling their troops out. "This drawdown," reads the NATO statement released after the April 14 meeting, "will be orderly, coordinated, and deliberate." (Italics again mine.)
These Allies, note, have borne and will continue to bear much of the fallout. Europe is across land borders from Afghanistan, and is likely to be confronted with waves of refugees. A friend, Sultana, whose voice you may have heard together with mine on a recent "On Point" interview, has been working with women judges around the world to get their Afghan colleagues to safety. "We've gotten about a hundred out," she told me last time we spoke. "And the sad thing is, not one has been taken by the United States."
Partly because of their concern about another influx of desperate people like the thousands who washed into Europe throughout the Syrian civil war, “European governments were willing to stay, at least for a while, to stave off collapse.” They were willing to extend their own efforts in Afghanistan to allow the Ghani government to regain some purchase on the negotiating process, and to allow more public-spirited young Afghans to step into positions of leadership, as some were already doing. "But with the U.S. gone, it was just not possible."
In a final example of contempt shown to NATO Allies, it appears that the Biden Administration did in fact consult with one party about the withdrawal, in the last week before the clock ran out. As chaos broke out outside the Kabul airport, and it became clear that not all U.S. and Allied nationals or vulnerable Afghan citizens could get out in time, the possibility of a last-minute extension of America's self-imposed August 31 deadline emerged. CIA director Bill Burns flew to Kabul to meet with Taliban leaders.
They announced an ultimatum: no extension. The U.S. toed the red line. The deadline stayed where it was: August 31.
The Biden administration, in other words, consulted with the Taliban about its plans. But our Allies were merely informed.
Again, I am grateful to all of you who have submitted comments. I would take a moment here to emphasize one distinction. This post is not about the fact of the U.S. withdrawal. It is about the how of it. As I have suggested elsewhere, major decisions of this sort are not like railroad switches, which only have an "on" and an "off." The how matters at least as much as the what.
There were numerous ways to have conducted ourselves during the 20 years we were present in Afghanistan that would not have fed the legions of contractors and Afghan officials who enriched themselves at the expense of Afghan and American citizens. Please see my post "Afghanistan Action Plan: January 2009" for one of them. U.S. civilian leadership, across four administrations, was at least as responsible for the misguided policies as were military officers.
Today, again, I wonder: were there no different ways Washington might have reached and executed a decision to end our involvement in Afghanistan?
I share these reflections in a spirit of patriotism. For (as my father once said) I don't believe that it is wrong to hold my country up to its own highest standards.
In this vein, and in the vein of making this site a place for thoughtful discussion, I share the reaction of Dutch Lt. General (ret) Ton van Loon. I do so with his permission. Like the diplomat mentioned above, I've known van Loon for more than a dozen years. He was in charge of the southern regional command in 2006 and 2007, and we have discussed these issues and worked on them together ever since. He is not, therefore, a journalistic "source." He's someone whose words and actions I have observed. He is someone who makes a habit of directing criticism and suggestions for improvement at his own community, rather than pointing fingers.
"I mostly agree with you," van Loon wrote in an email...But.
"Firstly, I think most European allies were perfectly happy that they were not consulted, because in that case, it is so much easier to blame."
Blame the United States, he meant.
"Secondly, none of the Allies really ever saw this [the Afghanistan engagement] as something we (not just the U.S.) must put our shoulders under or our heart in. Most of us tried to get away with doing as little as possible. Especially the responsibilities [that were laid out] in the Bonn agreement, [with different NATO Allies overseeing different Afghan government functions] were never seriously taken on. There is very little talk in Europe now about why the Afghan police failed (German lead), or why the justice system failed (Italian lead), etc., etc. We left the US doing it alone.
Thirdly the emphasis is now firmly on the military, and its defeat. Not on the political lack of interest/urgency. Fourthly, I believe we -- all of us -- have not yet understood what really happened and why this matters. Afghanistan is 38 million people suffering from poverty, bad government and a violent insurgency. Nigeria suffers the same problems but has 160 million people.
The lesson we need to learn from Afghanistan is not that we cannot do operations like this -- will we have that option? -- but that we must do them far, far better.
From other exchanges with van Loon over the years, I believe that what he means by "better" is this: a more civilianized approach, with anthropologists and linguists as numerous as soldiers, providing in-depth understanding of local circumstances and culture; experienced practitioners with relevant skills (not just foreign ministry bureaucrats) as mentors for local public officials; mechanisms for local oversight of international operations and the home government's actions; and, most importantly, the interests of the population at the heart of the effort.