What exactly was the Biden administration thinking during the Afghanistan evacuation?
Policymakers, analysts, politicians, military personnel and academia from around the globe gathered in Tallinn, Estonia, for a three-day conference Sept 3-6 that was dominated by that very question.
At some point in each of 21 official discussion sessions at the Lennart Meri Conference, the impact of the U.S.-led withdrawal of NATO troops in Afghanistan was mentioned. In some cases, the U.S. approach was bitterly criticized.
NATO allies, rattled by the events that unfolded, let it be known the alliance is at a crossroads. They are haunted by images of Afghans falling from airplane landing gear to their deaths in desperate attempts to escape the country.
The fallout was obvious in one discussion titled “NATO. Unus pro Omnibus, Omnes pro Uno: One for All, All for One.”
“The end is a disaster. I think this is certainly the way it’s seen everywhere by our adversaries, whether they be great power adversaries or terrorist groups,” said Philippe Errera, director general for political and security affairs, Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs of France.
However, he made clear that NATO members’ frustration with the U.S. should not dictate how future cooperation is handled.
“I don’t think we should judge our actions over the last 20 years by what’s happened in the last 20 days,” said Errera.
He suggested there could’ve been more discussion about the U.S. plans within the NATO community. But he said the lack of those discussions was not the Biden administration’s fault alone, suggesting that none of the NATO countries, as apoplectic as they were, forced the U.S.’s hand by boldly saying no to its plan.
“I think here that there is a shared responsibility in not having used NATO for what it should be, which is a place where we can openly put the questions, even the hard questions — especially the hard questions — on the table and not be satisfied with insufficient answers to hard questions.”
Baiba Braze, NATO’s assistant secretary general for public diplomacy, suggested in the same panel discussion that the U.S. was transparent, but the NATO alliance just wasn’t listening.
“Of course we are reeling from Afghanistan, but let me remind you: We shouldn’t have been surprised by the decision that was taken. We should have listened to the American leaders. They clearly indicated where they stood.”
President Joe Biden said in late August he had not heard any criticism from U.S. allies regarding the messy withdrawal from Afghanistan, but there has been plenty since and more is likely to come.
White House officials, asked about the concerns of NATO allies, pointed to remarks by Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Germany on Sept. 8.
“Ultimately, to be effective — and this is really the last word I wanted to say — we must be aligned,” Blinken said. “And to advance our shared interests, our engagement with the Taliban has to be coherent, clear-eyed, circumspect, and — again, as much as possible — aligned.”
It’s notable that those remarks came near the end of his speech, and at no point was NATO mentioned by name.
How much does NATO really matter to the U.S. government? Allied countries are now wrestling with that question.
For NATO members, while Biden’s presidency is a welcomed change from former President Donald Trump’s chaotic and isolationist policies, bombastic statements and cozy relationship with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, the Afghanistan withdrawal has made them wonder whether Biden really meant it when he said “America is back.”
Many of the officials at the conference quietly worried the U.S. might be looking to distance itself from NATO when global crises arise. Members of the foreign press have also picked up on the strain.
“Biden told us this spring: ‘America is back,’ but it was telling that no U.S. official or any U.S. Democrats or Republicans were on the panels” in Estonia earlier this month, said Mikael Holmström, security policy correspondent at Dagens Nyheter, in Sweden.
Sweden is not a NATO country, but, like the rest of the EU, it is dependent on the U.S. connection to NATO.
Holmström said most parties in Sweden are “underlining the importance of the transatlantic link,” because they don’t want to deploy an autonomous EU military: “The EU, on paper, has had a battalion-sized battle group since 2008, but has never agreed on sending them anywhere and who should pay for them.”
Panel moderator Jana Puglierin, senior policy fellow and the head of the Berlin office in the European Council on Foreign Relations, prodded panel members multiple times during the 90-minute session, asking whether the outcome in Afghanistan would “change American security and defense policy? Does it change America’s engagement with allies?”
Panelists and members of the audience indicated the answer may be unknowable until the next crisis arises.