Berlin - The images coming out of Kabul this week, of desperate Afghans clinging to the sides of evacuating US military planes and falling to their deaths, have been traumatic to watch – both for Americans and Europeans.
It is easy to forget, given Washington’s unilateral withdrawal without consultation, but this was in fact a Nato war with the heavy participation of European countries. It is Germany’s largest military intervention since the Second World War, with around 150,000 German soldiers deployed there over the past two decades and 12.5 billion Euros of German taxpayer money spent in 20 years of training for an Afghan army that collapsed in just a week. At the war’s end, Germany had the second largest contingent of troops in Afghanistan after the United States.
And yet, despite those 20 years of German commitment and the refugee risks presented by the hasty withdrawal, Germany and other European Nato members were not consulted about when and how to end this war. President Trump unilaterally made his peace deal with the Taliban last year, setting an exit date of May 2021 in contravention of the Nato policy of conditional withdrawal.
President Biden promised to be different than his predecessor and consult with Europeans about their shared war, saying: “We went in together, we’ll go out together.” But in the end, he ran roughshod over concerns expressed by Italy and the UK at the June 2021 Nato summit about the pace of withdrawal, delaying the exit date by just four months.
As much as this ignoble end to the war is a disaster for American credibility, it is also a deep humiliation for Europe. The Afghanistan War marks two firsts for Nato: the first time the Article 5 mutual defence clause was invoked (obliging European countries to join the US-led war) and, 20 years later, the first time Nato has lost a war. Nato was used by Washington as a vehicle to browbeat European countries into entering this war, into agreeing the mission creep toward nation-building, and into a hasty withdrawal that has put countless lives at risk. And all the while European countries could only stand by as spectators. There was no conceivable way they could have stayed in Afghanistan without the US.
This has highlighted Europe’s military impotence and must force some long overdue soul-searching about what Nato is. It may mark a turning point for the way the alliance is viewed, even in the countries which have been most reticent to acknowledge its problems: the UK, Germany and eastern Europe. CDU chancellor candidate Armin Laschet broke some major German taboos on Monday when he called this “the biggest debacle that Nato has suffered since its founding” which must prompt “a no-holds-barred analysis of errors in Germany, with our allies and in the international community”. Former British Prime Minister Theresa May went even further in a speech to the House of Commons on Wednesday, saying: “Surely one outcome of this must be a reassessment of how Nato operates ... What what does it say about us as a country, what does it say about Nato, if we are entirely dependent on a unilateral position taken by the US?”
There are those who will say it is too early to talk about rethinking what Nato is, but this is the persistent line of those who fear change and don’t actually want to do anything. The time to think seriously about the future of Nato is now. If Europeans don’t tackle this issue, there may not be a future for Nato at all.
Dave Keating is an American journalist based in Brussels covering European politics for France 24 and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.