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Afghanistan debacle jolts NATO, angers Europeans

The fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban has deeply damaged trust in NATO and left European leaders in shock as they worry about an influx of Afghan refugees and despair over 20 years of nation-building going up in smoke.

(CN) — The sudden and dramatic collapse of Afghanistan to Taliban control is being seen as NATO's first military defeat and a serious setback in the warming of relations between U.S. President Joe Biden and his European allies, who are worried about seeing another refugee crisis at their borders.

By Tuesday, with the Afghan capital of Kabul under the control of Taliban fighters, European leaders expressed deep frustration with Biden and his decision for a hasty exit from Afghanistan.

Armin Laschet, a conservative German politician expected to take over as chancellor after September federal elections, called the Afghanistan operation a failure and the events in recent days “the biggest debacle that NATO has suffered since its founding.”

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, U.S. President George W. Bush invoked the mutual defense obligation under Article 5 of the NATO treaty and got Europeans to join the U.S. in battle with the Taliban with the aim of destroying Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida. It is the only time that Article 5 has been invoked.

But after the quick rout of the Taliban, Europeans then backed Bush and his cabinet of neoconservatives in their designs to build a new democratic government in Afghanistan, a nation of about 37 million people in faraway Central Asia. They called this nation-building mission the International Security Assistance Force.

On Monday, Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron tried to describe the NATO mission in Afghanistan as simply a fight against terrorism and not about nation-building, but that argument was seen as historical revisionism.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who also spoke to her nation on Monday evening about Afghanistan, was more honest about the failure of NATO's mission in Afghanistan and the dangerous future awaiting millions of Afghans under Taliban rule.

“Everything else that has followed [the early destruction of al-Qaida] has not been as successful and has not been achieved in the way that we had planned …you have to set smaller goals, I think, in such missions,” she said.

Merkel called the events in Afghanistan “an extremely bitter development. Bitter, dramatic and terrifying.” Germany lost 59 soldiers in Afghanistan.

Prior to the NATO invasion, the Taliban's rule in Afghanistan was marked by the imposition of sharia law, widespread violence, executions by stoning and the mistreatment of women, who were not allowed to leave their homes. In recent days, the Taliban leadership has vowed that it has changed and become moderate, but already reports of violence and persecution have surfaced as they reinstall their iron rule over Afghanistan.

Meeting with Biden in May, European leaders reportedly advised against a quick withdrawal from Afghanistan but were powerless to reverse his decision. Once the U.S. announced plans to remove its soldiers, NATO allies did the same.

NATO's missteps and its failure to build up an Afghan national army and strong democratic government led to the chaotic and troubling scenes of Afghans desperately seeking to be evacuated from Kabul in the past couple of days. Videos showed Afghans even trying to cling onto a U.S. Air Force airplane that was taking off from the airport in Kabul, reportedly leading to at least two deaths after people fell from the airplane.

Throughout the 20 years of NATO involvement in Afghanistan, the Taliban continued to fight against the NATO presence. More than 164,000 Afghans were killed in the fighting and hundreds of thousands were wounded. Many Afghan civilians were among those killed and injured.

Casualties were high among NATO troops too. About 2,448 U.S. soldiers, 1,144 soldiers from other NATO countries and 3,846 U.S. contractors were killed. Tens of thousands of NATO personnel were wounded. The cost of the Afghan war to the U.S. is estimated at about $2 trillion.

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For Afghanistan to fall back into the hands of the Taliban in a matter of days is a shock to the NATO alliance.

“For the first time, the transatlantic alliance has lost a war,” wrote Dave Keating, a Brussels-based journalist and fellow at the Atlantic Council, in an analysis. “The trauma of that experience – and the sidelining of its European members – has big implications for NATO's future.”

European foreign affairs ministers, Keating said, were opposed to Biden's decision to carry out a troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, which was first announced by former President Donald Trump. In Europe, the withdrawal of troops by Biden was seen as caving in to domestic pressure, though Biden has in the past expressed doubts about keeping soldiers in Afghanistan.

“There was a consensus that a cast-iron guarantee was needed from the Taliban of their commitment to a ceasefire and political solution before withdrawal could take place,” Keating said, citing the concerns of European foreign ministers. “They noted that the consequences of a hasty withdrawal would be felt more by Europe than by the United States.”

Europeans are now concerned that they will see large numbers of Afghans seeking refuge within the European Union. For now, most European leaders say they will welcome Afghans fleeing persecution and bloodshed, though with reservations. In recent weeks, European countries have said Afghans deemed ineligible for asylum should be sent back to their homeland.

Immigration is a major source of friction in Europe and it has caused deep divisions. The United Kingdom's exit from the EU in 2016 was largely fueled by a sense among Brits that Europe's borders were too porous. Across Europe, far-right anti-EU nationalist politicians have gained a footing by exploiting fears over immigration from Muslim countries.

The fall of Afghanistan and the images of thousands of Afghans trying desperately to flee their homeland by getting on board NATO airplanes immediately drew parallels with the U.S. exit from Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War.

“Vietnam was an American war, demoralizing one nation,” Keating said. “Afghanistan is a NATO mission, and its failure will demoralize two continents.”

He said the U.S. “has not only abandoned the Afghans it worked with over the past two decades, it’s also left European countries in the lurch as they scramble to evacuate their citizens and those who have helped them.”

Afghan security guards stand on a wall as hundreds of people gather outside the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Tuesday. (AP Photo)

The NATO alliance was put under massive strain during the Trump White House and Biden's election victory was seen a return to normal relations. But the Afghanistan debacle has once again put the world's foremost military alliance on rocky ground.

“There is little trust left in Europe toward Washington,” Keating said. “How can NATO, which is effectively an American military protectorate over Europe and that relies in trust as its bedrock, survive in its current form in such conditions?”

Bitterness over Afghanistan is poised to only get worse in Europe as the crisis deepens.

“The disaster in Afghanistan is also Merkel’s disaster,” the Der Spiegel magazine lamented. “The dramatic, chaotic pictures out of Afghanistan will remain connected to her, as a disgraceful end to her time in office.”

Norbert Rottgen, a member of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union and the chairman of the German parliament’s foreign relations committee, said the “early withdrawal was a serious and far-reaching miscalculation by the current administration.”

“This does fundamental damage to the political and moral credibility of the West,” he said.

In London, British politicians also took a dark view of events.

“Afghanistan is the biggest foreign policy disaster since Suez,” said Tom Tugendhat, a Conservative Party member and chairman of the British parliament’s foreign affairs committee. “We need to think again about how we handle friends, who matters and how we defend our interests,”

He was referring to the calamitous decision in 1956 by Great Britain to join Israel and France in invading Egypt to regain control over the Suez Canal. But the United States, the Soviet Union and the United Nations forced the U.K. and France to give up the invasion, resulting in a major humiliation for Britain. Historians credit the Suez Canal debacle as a major factor in the collapse of the British Empire.

On Tuesday, Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary-general, acknowledged at a news conference in Brussels just how crushing the events in Afghanistan are to the alliance.

“Kabul has fallen, and the Taliban have taken control of most of the country,” he said. “I am deeply saddened by what I see unfolding in Afghanistan.”

He said NATO was focused on getting its personnel out of Afghanistan and helping evacuate Afghans such as interpreters and human rights activists who helped NATO's efforts.

“Ending our military mission was not easy,” he said. “We were faced with a serious dilemma. Either leave, and risk seeing the Taliban regain control. Or stay, and risk renewed attacks, and an open-ended combat mission.”

He said NATO “never intended to stay in Afghanistan forever” and that the number of NATO troops had dropped from over 100,000 to less than 10,000 before the alliance’s exit.

“But what we have seen in the last few weeks was a military and political collapse at a speed which had not been anticipated,” he said.

He blamed the Afghan government for the disaster. “This failure of Afghan leadership led to the tragedy we are witnessing today,” he said.

He said the NATO mission was successful in weeding out terrorist operations in Afghanistan and fostering a “new generation” of Afghans, especially women, who value education and human rights.

But he said NATO too needs to recognize its faults and shortcomings.

“At the same time, we need to have an honest, clear-eyed assessment of NATO’s own engagement in Afghanistan....Despite our considerable investment and sacrifice over two decades, the collapse was swift and sudden.”

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

Follow Cain Burdeau on Twitter

Follow @cainburdeau
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