Collapse of US Credibility in Kabul

The suicide bombings at Kabul airport in the midst of the chaotic US exit from Afghanistan are creating a crisis of confidence in US leadership both at home and abroad. While American frustration over 20 years of seemingly endless conflict provided a domestic political environment conducive for US disengagement from Afghanistan, the way this disengagement is being handled — marked by unilateralism and seeming disregard for the interests and security of both Nato allies and the Afghan government — has thrown the credibility of the US into question at a time when the Biden administration was seeking to promote US moral authority by asserting a global leadership role, which had been floundering after the presidency of Donald Trump.

In March, the White House published President Joe Biden’s Interim National Security Strategy, outlining his case for the continued relevance of US leadership in the world today, and outlining a game plan to turn his vision into reality. A key element of this vision was the notion that democratic nations were increasingly being challenged by “antagonistic authoritarian powers” such as China and Russia. The best way to meet this challenge was for the US to lead by the power of its example. “Our success,” the document declared, “will be a beacon to other democracies, whose freedom is intertwined with our own security, prosperity and way of life.”

Biden and his administration sought to double down on the primacy of the alliances, institutions, agreements and norms underpinning the post-World War II international order led by the US. This “international rules-based order” became the centerpiece of US foreign policy and was seen as differentiating US-led Western democracies from the authoritarianism of Russia and China.

Actions, however, speak louder than words. One of the greatest tests of current US credibility and the country’s commitment to the postwar international order has come in the handling of the complex and fast-moving situation in Afghanistan. The US entered that conflict with the authority and backing of the entire world, which rallied to its cause following the Sep. 11, 2001, terror attacks. Backed by a string of Chapter VII resolutions unanimously passed by the UN Security Council and the full support of its Nato allies, the US was able to largely defeat Al-Qaeda and the Taliban while helping install a new Afghan government backed by international forces.

This promising start, however, was squandered as the US became distracted by Iraq and the decision to invade and occupy that nation without the kind of widespread international support it enjoyed in Afghanistan. The role that US involvement in Iraq played in undermining its credibility in Afghanistan cannot be understated. This is especially true when it comes to the interactions between the US and its Nato allies. As an institution, Nato is based upon the singularity of purpose among its members and a commonality in equipment, training, doctrine and operations.

While the US viewed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as falling under the umbrella of its “global war on terror,” other Nato members differentiated between the two conflicts, creating a disunity in both purpose and resolve that did not exist during the Cold War. Moreover, both the Iraq and Afghan conflicts became bifurcated into two mutually exclusive campaigns — counterterrorism and nation building. This fracturing of strategic focus created problems of legitimacy in Afghanistan as US priorities shifted away from the nation-building project that was integral to the various agreements and resolutions that gave Nato’s presence legitimacy.

For example, the German military had responsibility for training Afghan military and police in northern Afghanistan as well as undertaking various nation-building operations involving civilian infrastructure projects. This effort created a strong bond between the German military and the local Afghan civilian government institutions. The US counterterrorism campaign in northern Afghanistan, however, operated totally separately from the German nation-building exercise and the local Afghan government institutions.

This kind of operational disconnect between the US and its Nato allies regarding purpose and outcomes persisted throughout the 20-year Afghan conflict but it was largely ignored by Nato as an institution during the Bush and Obama administrations.

The Trump Era

The election of Donald Trump in 2016 created a new political reality for Nato. For the first time in its history, Nato was confronted by a US commander-in-chief who vacillated between indifference and hostility toward the survival of the trans-Atlantic alliance. To the extent that President Trump supported Nato, it was only to the context that Nato supported US objectives and interests. During the Trump era, Nato emphasized its military commitment in Afghanistan to demonstrate to an otherwise skeptical Trump administration the relevance of the alliance.

This display of institutional loyalty, however, was not enough. Trump ordered the US military to begin drawing down its presence in Afghanistan and began negotiating a peace settlement with the Taliban. These negotiations were conducted largely independent of both the Nato alliance and Afghan government, resulting in the signing of a peace agreement between the Talban and the US in February 2020 that was premised on the withdrawal of all foreign troops –US and Nato — from Afghanistan by May 2021 and the creation of a new joint government of Afghanistan that incorporated the Taliban.

While Trump aggressively pushed to withdraw all US forces from Afghanistan, his timeline clashed with US electoral politics and he lost the presidency to Biden. This created a window of opportunity for the Pentagon, unhappy with the precipitous Trump-directed withdrawal, to slow down the process, enabling the US to retain a force of some 3,000 troops in Afghanistan at the time of Biden’s inauguration along with another 8,000 Nato troops. Given that Biden had campaigned on a promise of restoring US global leadership, including full support of the Nato alliance, many in the US and Nato believed that Biden would disregard the Trump agreement with the Taliban and renew the previous US commitment to building military and governmental institutions in Afghanistan capable of resisting and defeating the Taliban.

Biden did order his national security team to review US policy objectives in Afghanistan. Biden had committed himself to ending what he called the “forever war” in Afghanistan. When confronted with the reality that despite 20 years of effort, some $2.4 trillion in spending and thousands of causalities, the Afghan government and military was still too dysfunctional to prevail over the Taliban, Biden decided to follow the Trump peace plan. After consultations with both the Taliban and Nato, Biden, in April 2021, announced that he would be withdrawing all US forces from Afghanistan by Sep. 11, 2021. Nato committed to withdrawing its forces by that timetable as well.

While Biden gave vocal support to the importance of reconciliation between the Afghan government and the Taliban, the reality was that US policy was driven by a singular focus on getting US troops out of Afghanistan without suffering any loss of life among them. The Taliban had committed to not attacking US forces while they withdrew: A commitment that they honored in full. Left in the lurch, however, was the Afghan military, which, once the US began pulling out, lost the support needed to resist the Taliban. The collapse of the Afghan military precipitated the collapse of the Afghan government, leading to a situation where the Taliban were able to seize control of Afghanistan by the middle of August.

The demise of both the Nato mission in Afghanistan and the Afghan government it was intended to support were in large part driven by the unilateral way that the US planned and implemented its withdrawal. While Biden may speak of respecting alliances and agreements, he proved that he was as capable of placing US interests above those of its allies as had been the Trump administration. This choice in turn calls into question Biden’s commitment to the alliances, institutions, agreements and norms that underpin the so-called rules-based international order that serves as the centerpiece of US policy. Biden can make as many speeches as he wants about the primacy of America’s moral leadership vis-à-vis its authoritarian adversaries. However, the tragic US exit from Afghanistan has shredded its credibility in projecting an alternative to Russia and China on the world stage today.

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