The American exit from Afghanistan may have been authored by Donald Trump, but NATO has decided to co-sign. Trump had unilaterally planned the withdrawal, a withdrawal which would have left NATO forces without necessary logistical and security support. This morning, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that all Western forces in the country would exit together by the new September deadline:
A coalition of NATO-led troops in Afghanistan will leave the country in coordination with a planned U.S. withdrawal by Sept. 11, Washington’s top diplomat said on Wednesday, ahead of a formal announcement of the end of two decades of fighting.
Around 7,000 non-U.S. forces from mainly NATO countries, but also from Australia, New Zealand and Georgia, outnumber the 2,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan but still rely on U.S. air support, planning and leadership for their training mission.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in Brussels that it was time for NATO allies to make good on its mantra that allies went into Afghanistan together and would leave together.
“I am here to work closely with our allies, with the (NATO) secretary-general, on the principle that we have established from the start: In together, adapt together and out together,” Blinken said in a televised statement at NATO headquarters.
The decision to withdraw from Afghanistan might not be a change from the previous administration, but the decision to coordinate it with NATO is. Last November, the Trump administration announced drawdowns without joint action from NATO, and insisted that US troops would exit in May regardless of the disposition of NATO forces. Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg publicly objected to that strategy, and some Republicans on Capitol Hill objected as well:
“NATO went into Afghanistan after an attack on the United States to ensure that it would never again be a safe haven for international terrorists,” he said. “Hundreds of thousands of troops from Europe and beyond have stood shoulder to shoulder with American troops in Afghanistan, and over one thousand of them have paid the ultimate price.”
He also called for all NATO allies to honor their commitment and to withdraw when the time is right. “We went into Afghanistan together. And when the time is right, we should leave together in a coordinated and orderly way. I count on all NATO allies to live up to this commitment, for our own security,” he said.
That was a fair request under the paradigm of united action, the same paradigm that led NATO into Afghanistan in the first place to assist the US. It’s worth noting that some of our NATO partners have already left Afghanistan, just as they did in Iraq when the political winds shifted, but NATO itself and some of our core allies have stuck it out. They deserved to have the US work with them on a coordinated exit rather than be left holding the bag on a unilateral withdrawal by the country that asked for their help in the first place.
That might not be the only parallel to Iraq, as the New York Times points out today:
Will the threat of terrorism against America re-emerge from Afghanistan?The answer is no, at least not right away. But over the longer term, the question is far more difficult to answer. The United States could find itself pulled back into Afghanistan much as it was in Iraq, some current and former officials warned.
Intelligence officials have offered the Biden administration an overall grim portrait of the future of Afghanistan itself, predicting that the Taliban will make battlefield gains, Afghan government forces will struggle to hold territory and a peace deal between them is unlikely. The broad outlines of that assessment were made public in an intelligence report released on Tuesday.
Still, on the critical question of whether direct threats to the United States still exist in Afghanistan, U.S. spy agencies have privately offered a rosier picture.
The agencies do not believe Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups pose an immediate threat to strike the United States from Afghanistan, an assessment that the Biden administration considered pivotal as it weighed continuing the war or pulling out forces this year.
Both Trump and Biden planned to retain quick-strike capabilities against any terror networks that form in the wake of our exit. That’s easier said than done without any boots on the ground, however. Our presence in the country allows us better intelligence and better target discretion, as well as the infrastructure and logistics necessary for precision strikes and follow-up territory clean-up. We had those capabilities in Iraq too after Barack Obama and Joe Biden unilaterally withdrew American troops, and look how well that worked in stopping Al-Qaeda in Iraq from metastasizing into ISIS.
Still, at least Iraq has a sense of itself as a semi-cohesive and modern nation. We could stay another fifty years in Afghanistan, and it would still be a collection of pre-industrial tribal conflicts that it’s always been, with a couple of virtual city-states in Kabul and Kandahar as exceptions. Twenty years has taught us that much, and that further intervention is highly unlikely to transform it into a modern nation. At least with this coordination, we can call on NATO to assist us in the future if those threats develop, rather than wonder whether they might take a pass the next time the US says it needs some assistance in its security.