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Op-ed: The disaster in Afghanistan threatens Biden’s ‘America is back’ message to allies

Taliban patrol in Herat city after took control in Herat, Afghanistan, on August 18, 2021 as Taliban take control of Afghanistan after 20 years.

Mir Ahmad Firooz | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

At the end of the worst week of President Joe Biden’s young presidency, this is the question he must urgently answer: “Of all the problems that his Afghanistan troop withdrawal decision has generated, which is most significant?”

Lay aside for the moment the ever-popular Washington blame game about who is responsible for not anticipating the rapid Taliban takeover and the collapse of the democratically elected Afghan government and its army. Or why the Biden administration didn’t better facilitate the safe evacuation of U.S. citizens and their endangered Afghan allies. 

It will be crucial over time to digest the lessons learned from our past 20 years in Afghanistan – so we don’t repeat the many mistakes that have been made. However, even that discussion must take a backseat to the urgency of dealing with the immediate risks, their implications and decisions that could control the damage.

The most compelling answer to the question of what Biden “dare not ignore” in Afghanistan falls roughly into three categories: the danger to the Biden presidency’s defining “America is back” narrative, the risks that grows from questions about U.S. competence and commitment, the likely terrorist resurgence alongside the urgent need to decide whether to work with or against the Taliban.

Chief among all of these is the existential threat to Biden’s most inspiring and reassuring narrative to allies and fellow democracies that the U.S. is once again a reliable ally and partner, following the uncertainties that grew among them during the Trump administration.

The consequences from this risk would outstrip all the others posed by the Afghanistan situation in an era that Biden himself characterized as an “inflection point” in history, defined by a systemic contest between democracy and autocracy. 

“We are in the midst of a fundamental debate about the future and direction of our world,” Biden told a receptive virtual audience on Feb. 21 at the Munich Security Conference, grateful for this “America is back” embrace of allies following the cold shoulder of former President Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda.

“We’re at an inflection point,” Biden told them, “between those who argue that, given all the challenges we face – from the fourth industrial revolution to a global pandemic – that autocracy is the best way forward …and those who understand that democracy is essential, essential to meeting those challenges.”

The danger now is that Biden could be confronting an inflection point of a different sort, where democratic allies’ doubts about U.S. reliability grow, where the fragile Afghan democracy becomes an unfriendly theocracy, and where adversaries further test Washington’s resolve in places like Ukraine for the Russians or Taiwan for China.

“At a certain point of time, the White House may not even remember about its supporters in Kyiv,” said Nikolai Patrushev, Vladimir Putin’s top national security advisor, in an interview. He added that Ukrainians shouldn’t rely on Americans because one day they would abandon it just as they did Afghanistan.  

The Global Times, which often acts as a mouthpiece for China’s leadership, played up the notion of U.S. unreliability in a Monday editorial: “Once a war breaks out in the Taiwan Straits, the island’s defense will collapse in hours, and the US military won’t come to help.” 

Wrote the Chinese state news agency Xinhua: “Following the blows of the global financial crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic, the decay of the American hegemony has become an undisputed reality. Its failure in Afghanistan is another turning point in that spiral fall.”

It is unsurprising that Russia and China would make the most out of Afghanistan in their psychological operations and propaganda. More concerning, though, are the doubts among America’s staunchest allies. Many of them had been deeply relieved by Biden’s election. Now they complain that their countries, some of whom had troops in Afghanistan dependent on U.S. partnership, weren’t consulted ahead of Biden’s April announcement of troop withdrawal.

As disturbing as Trump’s rhetoric toward allies was, his administration’s actions were often reassuring. The opposite is true in the case of the Biden administration, where the rhetoric has been reassuring but the unilateral actions unsettling, said one European ambassador.

Lord George Robertson, who was NATO secretary general when the alliance on September 12, 2001, invoked Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty for the first time, declaring that the terrorist attack a day earlier on the United States would be seen as an attack on all 19 countries in the alliance.

“There was a moment of unique solidarity,” he said at the Atlantic Council on Friday. “I felt proud of the organization I had the privilege of leading at the time. My sentiment this week is the opposite. I don’t feel proud. I feel ashamed, because that solidarity seems to have gone. The principle of we all go in (to Afghanistan) together and we all come out together seems to have been completely lost.”

He spoke of how everything accomplished over the past two decades was at risk – the elimination of the terrorist threat, the education of women and girls and advances toward, if not a Western democracy, a more civilized and tolerant Afghanistan normality.

The alliance solidarity of that time, Lord Robertson said, “has been crushed by the unilateralism of the United States president, and I regret that because I’ve known Joe Biden for many, many years, and a man of wisdom and talent he is. But this act of recklessness has prejudiced and weakened NATO in ways from which we’re going to find it difficult to recover.”

In December, shortly after Biden’s election as president, I argued, “Joe Biden has that rarest of opportunities that history provides: the chance to be a transformative foreign-policy president.

That was true because of Covid and its global economic threat. It was true because of the need to better manage relations with China. Most of all it was true because U.S. allies were eager to turn the page on the Trump administration and restore common cause among leading democracies.

It never struck me at the time that Afghanistan could emerge as the biggest obstacle to Biden’s ability to play that historic role. But that’s where we find ourselves today.

Biden must bring competence and humanity to Afghan evacuation efforts. He’s got to manage the aftermath of Taliban takeover and potential terrorist threat, all while facing the generational challenge from China and authoritarian resurgence.

He should start by making it clear through actions, not just rhetoric, that he intends to work closely on all matters of common concern – whether it’s framing China policy or Taliban engagement — with the allies he neglected on his way out of Afghanistan.   

Frederick Kempe is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Atlantic Council.

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