Allies and critics alike on Monday condemned the United States over its 20-year NATO campaign in Afghanistan, with a leading German politician slamming the operation as “the biggest debacle” in the alliance’s history.
Stunned by the Taliban’s lightning advance across the country after the departure of Western troops, NATO allies have been left scrambling to evacuate their nationals as well as vulnerable Afghans.
The Taliban’s return to power and chaotic scenes of people desperately seeking to flee Kabul on Western military aircraft have sparked criticism of the two-decade operation, which cost the alliance thousands of lives and over a trillion dollars.
Britain slammed the American decision to leave Afghanistan, with Defense Secretary Ben Wallace warning on Friday that the Taliban’s resurgence would create a breeding ground for extremists that threatened the world.
“Of course, Al-Qaeda will probably come back,” he said, warning that would lead to “a security threat to us and our interests”.
“I felt that that was a mistake to have done it that way, that we’ll all, as an international community, probably pay the consequences of that,” Wallace said of the Doha agreement signed between the United States and the Taliban.
The agreement, signed under former president Donald Trump last year, would have seen the US withdraw all its troops by May 2021 in exchange for security guarantees from the Islamist hardliners.
When Joe Biden took power earlier this year, he pushed back the deadline for the withdrawal to August 31.
Chancellor Angela Merkel said the US-led NATO operation achieved less than planned, adding she shared the pain of families of soldiers killed “as it seems right now like it was all in vain”.
The deployment effectively ended Al-Qaeda’s ability to launch another operation on the scale of its September 11, 2001 attack on the United States, but “everything else that has followed has not been as successful and has not been achieved in the way that we had planned”, Merkel said.
Lessons must be drawn, she said.
“You also have to set smaller goals, I think, in such missions.”
The Taliban’s return to power was “particularly dramatic and terrible”, she said.
“It is terrible for the millions of Afghans who had worked for a freer society and who, with the support of the Western community, have focused on democracy, on education, on women’s rights,” she said.
In a meeting with her party’s top brass earlier on Monday, Merkel had said that once the US decided to withdraw it was clear that other allies had to follow suit.
The decision was “ultimately made by the Americans”, and “domestic political reasons” were partly to blame, said the chancellor, according to people in the meeting.
“The troop withdrawal sparked a domino effect” that culminated in the Taliban’s return, said Merkel, whose country provided the second-biggest contingent of troops after the US.
The leader of her party had harsher words, calling the entire Afghanistan operation NATO’s worst disaster.
“It is the biggest debacle that NATO has suffered since its founding,” said Armin Laschet, who is the conservative candidate to succeed Merkel as chancellor in September’s elections.
Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the failure to anticipate the Taliban’s swift advance was a collective error.
“All of us — the federal government, intelligence services, the international community — misjudged the situation,” Maas told a press conference.
Like Merkel, Wallace said the deal cut by Trump left Britain with no choice but to pull out too.
Many are wondering whether they could rely on the United States to fulfill long-standing security commitments stretching from Europe to East Asia.
The rare criticism of the US’s role by allies dovetailed with negative voices from rivals of the United States expressing dismay.
Among them is China, which fears that the ascent of an extremist Islamist government on its western border will foster unrest in the adjoining province of Xinjiang, where Beijing has waged sweeping crackdowns on the Uyghur population that have been denounced by the West.
Washington “bears an unavoidable responsibility for the current situation in Afghanistan,” Col. Wu Qian, a spokesman for China’s Ministry of National Defense, said earlier this month. “It cannot leave and shed the burden on regional countries.”
Beijing has repeatedly lambasted what it sees as the hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan as a failure of leadership, while Moscow has said the pullout meant the US had failed in its mission in Afghanistan.
Russian presidential envoy for Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov told Russian news agency RIA, “The US cannot and should not transform the withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan into the relocation of its military facilities to Central Asia. We have already sent such a signal to Washington at various levels, I hope it will be heard.”
Russia has claimed that Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan’s US-installed president, fled the country with four cars and a helicopter stuffed full of cash as triumphant Taliban fighters were pictured celebrating in the vacated presidential palace in the capital.
Where is Biden’s promise?
“Whatever happened to ‘America is back’?” said Tobias Ellwood, who chairs the Defense Committee in the British Parliament, citing Biden’s foreign policy promise to rebuild alliances and restore U.S. prestige damaged during the Trump administration.
“People are bewildered that after two decades of this big, high-tech power intervening, they are withdrawing and effectively handing the country back to the people we went in to defeat,” Ellwood said.
“This is the irony. 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?”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken rejected criticisms that the withdrawal damages U.S. credibility. He said staying mired in a conflict that is not in the “national interest” would do far more damage.
“Most of our strategic competitors around the world would like nothing better than for us to remain in Afghanistan for another year, five years, 10 years, and have those resources dedicated to being in the midst of a civil war,” Blinken told CNN.
But the manner and implementation of the withdrawal has left allies feeling betrayed, said Cathryn Clüver Ashbrook, director of the German Council on Foreign Relations. Germany’s government, which withdrew its troops in June and is evacuating its embassy, has refrained from overt criticism of the U.S. withdrawal. SOVEREIGN/AQP