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Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, his first major foreign policy decision, has left allies playing catch-up even after the U.S. president sat down with EU and NATO officials this week.
On his first trip abroad as president, Biden had one important mission: to differentiate himself on the world stage from former President Donald Trump. Where Trump spurned the security alliance, lambasting members publicly and throwing into question Washington’s commitment to the group, Biden has pitched his arrival as a wholesale return to diplomatic norms.
“We are committed. We never fully left, but we're reasserting that fact that it's overwhelmingly in the interest of the United States of America to have a great relationship with NATO,” Biden said Tuesday ahead of a summit with European Union leaders. "I have a very different view than my predecessor."
But Biden’s decision to end the 20-year war, though telegraphed by the new commander in chief on the campaign trail, and preceded by a Trump administration-brokered U.S.-Taliban deal, still left many allies surprised.
“I think the Biden administration was a little bit more communicative but not very much,” said Adam Weinstein, a research fellow at the Quincy Institute and a U.S. Marine deployed to Afghanistan in 2012, noting how the Trump administration left NATO allies out of the loop during the negotiation of the U.S.-Taliban agreement, and in the aftermath.
“Some of these countries … sent, for them, a significant number of troops,” Weinstein said. “One way they sold the Afghanistan mission to a domestic European audience was: ‘We're doing this to help women, to help support human rights and to build infrastructure, and to really improve the lives of Afghans.’ And so, to leave, and risk, all of that being undone is a difficult sell to the domestic audience.”
For NATO and European partners, who entered the post-9/11 conflict under Article 5, the alliance's mutual defense pact, “their main concern wasn't necessarily terrorism,” he said. “Sometimes, we forget when we build these coalitions that they all have domestic politics, too. It's not just the United States.”
Announcing the decision in April, Biden said the U.S. secured its objectives in the country when U.S. forces killed Osama bin Laden in 2011. Since then, "our reasons for staying have become increasingly unclear," he said.
The U.S. pullout is now ahead of schedule. American troops have already begun withdrawing following Biden’s order to leave the country by mid-September, an effort that, according to U.S. Central Command, is more than 50% complete.
“Some of our partners ... are sprinting to keep up,” said Bradley Bowman, senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Bowman criticized what he said was a focus on a symbolic timeline-based withdrawal, with a deadline of Sept. 11.
“This was clearly a political decision,” Bowman said. “If you and I were going to sit at a table and say, ‘OK, and in six months, we're going to make an announcement about withdrawing from Afghanistan, what are the things we need to have in place before we make that announcement?’ You and I would put the following things on that list."
"We'd say we need to have a plan for conducting counterterrorism," he added, saying such a plan would include these questions: "Where are we going to base those aircraft and drones? Have we approached those governments? Do we have basing agreements? What's our plan for providing maintenance and logistical support to the Afghan security forces? How are we going to secure Kabul airport so diplomats can get in and out to the embassy so we can maintain a diplomatic presence there? How are we going to maintain the security of our diplomats and our development professionals? What are the scenarios for us coming back?"
According to White House officials, these security challenges were the focus of discussions with partners this week in Europe, but the group stood behind Biden’s decision to withdraw.
“Many of the significant troop-contributing countries” backed Biden’s withdrawal plan, a senior administration official told reporters on a press call previewing Biden’s EU summit.
“They understood that the time had come,” this official said. “The real focus” of the assembled leaders “was on how we work together as an alliance to continue to provide support to the Afghan National Security Forces, the Afghan government, and the Afghan people,” and not on whether to stay or go in 2021.
The danger, Bowman said, is the potential for a return to violence on the ground.
“What makes it tragic is that this really is a repeat of the mistake the Obama administration made in 2011 in Iraq. That, too, was a conditions-ignoring, advice of commanders on the ground-ignoring, timeline-based withdrawal,” Bowman said. “And what do you know, and by 2014, we were right back in Iraq.”
The senior official said partners were focused on a host of security and economic issues inside Afghanistan in discussions this week.
The official added: “This question of support or nonsupport for the drawdown from Afghanistan ... is not the vibe in the room today. And, you know, it is — there is an incredible amount of warmth and unity around the entire agenda, including the ‘in together, out together’ aspect of the Afghanistan drawdown.”
Bowman said he has "no doubt that the Pentagon, that CENTCOM is working to answer these, but it just demonstrates that this was a political decision made first, and then all the details are being worked out after the fact.”
Jonathan Cristol, author of The United States and the Taliban before and after 9/11, said Biden could avoid further harm by determining a plan to help resettle Washington's Afghan partners, many of whom risked their lives to aid the U.S.
"We should be working with our partners on a coordinated effort to get those people out," Cristol, a research fellow at Adelphi University and senior fellow at Bard College, said. "Instead, what we've seen is that the U.K. has a plan for people who helped them that seems to be moving along reasonably well — France, same thing. As time runs out, I become less confident that we will do the right thing in that regard. And I think this will be extremely damaging to the legacy of the administration."
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Original Author: Katherine Doyle