Post-Afghanistan Transatlantic Self-Positioning

Policy Brief by former NATO diplomat Dr. Stefanie Babst
Mazar Afghanistan Blue Mosque
A man in front of the Blue Mosque in Mazar, Afghanistan. © Sven Gückel

Is the Western withdrawal from Afghanistan a current political event that soon fades from public awareness? Based on the media coverage, we could almost think so. Some of those responsible might welcome this: Who would want, after all, to plunge into a complex analysis that could reveal unpleasant truths about erroneous assessments and wrong decisions?

A self-critical appraisal of the West’s 20 years of involvement in Afghanistan, without prejudging the outcome, would be an indispensable precondition for deriving important lessons from this chapter in Western interventionism.

Ideally, an independent, competent and recognised body should design and carry out such a process. It would, of course, be desirable to entrust a lessons learned review to those who themselves participated in the multi-layered political and military decisions. Unfortunately, doing so would risk a clear view of Afghanistan as ‘object of investigation’ clouded by illicit attempts of self-justification and embellishment.

A self-critical reflection on the three Afghanistan operations (Enduring Freedom, ISAF and Resolute Support) should not focus on the question of political and personal responsibility. Instead, and as impartially as possible, it should serve to illuminate why, and in which critical decision-making phases, strategic, political and military misjudgements occurred in the consecutive missions. Hence leading to the overall outcome that after 20 years of engagement, the West has replaced the Taliban with the Taliban.

The conditions for such a strategic review are not particularly favourable in Germany. For the last several months, the political focus and that of the media have been on the election campaign in the run-up to the Bundestag elections, the end of the Merkel era and domestic topics like the Covid pandemic. The post-election period will be marked by exploratory talks between the political parties, coalition negotiations, the naming of a new federal government and the assembling of the next German Bundestag. It will take months until the new government is fully operational, also as concerns its foreign and security policy.

The minimum requirement for Germany (and NATO and the EU as participating organisations) would be a strategic self-positioning that has to find answers to the following questions: Where are we now? What are the immediate strategic consequences of the failure in Afghanistan? And which consequent foreign and security policy goals should the German government strive to achieve with its allies, by what means?

Why the termination of the Afghanistan mission is strategically relevant

Credibility and Narrative:  

Attempts by individual NATO members and leading representatives of NATO and the EU to qualify the significance of the victory of the radical-Islamic Taliban over the West in Afghanistan cannot obscure the fact that the failure of the West in the Hindu Kush is pertaining to a dramatic loss of credibility. This is not so much to be felt in Western societies, but rather among our strategic rivals (China), adversaries (Russia), other authoritarian regimes (North Korea, Iran), regional powers (Pakistan, India), and in the Muslim world. The essence of the pervasive narrative is that the West lacks sufficient political will, perseverance and strategic competence; that the USA does not stand by the values of democracy and human rights that it promotes; and that Europe has neither its own strategic will, nor adequate operational military capability.    

Political credibility cannot be re-established arbitrarily and promptly. Germany and its allies should continue their efforts to help Afghans persecuted by the regime in Kabul, intensify their diplomatic contacts with Afghanistan’s neighbours, and talk openly and self-reflectively in the Muslim world about the West’s complex involvement in Afghanistan.

Threat of Terrorism:        

With the establishment of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan (whose members include already convicted and internationally wanted representatives of radical Islamic terrorist networks), the chances of the Western community of keeping militant Islamism in check have not exactly increased. On the contrary, under the protection of those who for years have inflicted heavy losses on NATO troops in Afghanistan, members of al-Qaeda, Haqqani, and the Islamic State will be able to flourish almost undisturbed in the future. A Taliban-dominated Afghanistan will continue to develop beyond Western control and influence. Since militant Islamist groups are well interconnected regionally and globally, Western counterterrorism efforts are likely to become more difficult in the future.

Germany and its Western allies should consider how China, Pakistan, Russia and Afghanistan's Central Asian neighbours can be embedded in Western counterterrorism activities.

Global Disorder and Rivalry:

The security environment in which Germany and its Western allies operate will remain highly volatile and characterized by geostrategic rivalry between the great powers and ambitious regional and middle powers. As strategic competition is taking place in all policy fields and military domains, the West's response can only be composed of a holistic, comprehensive approach.  

The classic instruments of foreign policy (diplomacy, development aid) should be systematically planned, coordinated and implemented with military measures (credible deterrence, defence and crisis management capabilities), economic goals and activities, and measures for reinforcing societal resilience (cyber defence, protection of critical infrastructure and against disinformation campaigns). Both at the national (German) and international level (in the EU and NATO). A prerequisite to this end, however, is that Germany clearly defines its national security interests in the world.

Anticipating How America Will Act

National Security Interests:

From Washington’s point of view, America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, as well as its withdrawal from Iraq at the end of this year, is a logical step. It should not come as a surprise for the European allies as it is fully in line with the ‘Interim National Security Strategic Guidance’ announced by President Biden in March 2021. From now on, diplomacy and the strengthening of partnerships and alliances are supposed to become the most important instrument of American foreign policy; the use of military force, on the other hand, is described as a ‘last resort’. China and the Asia-Pacific region are denoted as military strategic priority.

The creation of the new AUKUS defence alliance in the Pacific region, along with Great Britain and Australia, is recent evidence of this. This is not just about sharing nuclear propulsion technologies for nuclear submarines, in this case for Australia, but also about establishing a new defence architecture in the region based on artificial intelligence, quantum computing, cybersecurity and other new technologies. The fact that, with the exception of London, no other European government is involved in the project should provide continental Europeans ample food for thought.

Washington wants to further adjust its military engagement in the Middle East and other regions. In the future, military interventions should follow clear and realistic objectives and be part of a comprehensible overall strategy. Even if this approach is welcome from a European perspective, it means that America’s withdrawal from previously strategically relevant regions (Central Asia, the Middle East, North and Central Africa) will continue unabated. As a consequence, other actors, first and foremost Russia, China and other regional powers, will try to further fill the strategic voids left by America: with military, diplomatic and economic instruments. Europe should find a strategic response to this.

Although key strategy documents of the U.S. administration, such as the future National Security Strategy, the Global Posture Review and the Military Strategy towards China are still pending, relevant postulates of the Biden administration have already become clear. Among others, these include:

a.) the close dovetailing of domestic and foreign policy as well as the credo of a “foreign policy for the American middle class”;
b.) the targeted protection of American security, economic and technological interests;
c.) the reconstruction of the democratic camp as well as the strengthening of partnerships and alliances in the world with the help of which complex global problems are to be tackled; and
d.) the firm intention, also and with the help of partners, to win the strategic competition with China.

It remains to be seen how the U.S. government will flesh out and implement its national goals in concrete terms. It would therefore be all the more important for representatives of the U.S. government to regularly inform their European allies about the state of development of these strategy documents (bilaterally as well as within the NATO framework).

Political Expectations:

It is in the logic of these and similar statements by President Biden that Washington continues to expect more political engagement and military capability from its European allies. Although the Biden administration currently gives no indication that it intends to reduce its military commitment in and for Europe in the future, Europeans should assume that prospectively, America will focus primarily on enforcing its strategic objectives in the Asia-Pacific region.  This will tie up political energy and resources of all kinds in Washington. This position will also be reflected in the negotiations on NATO's new strategic concept, which have already begun. Issues such as burden-sharing and relations with China will play a prominent role for Washington.

Contours of a ‚To-Do‘-List for Europe

The chaotic withdrawal of the Western allies from Afghanistan has once again made clear how little influence the Europeans actually have on the political decision-making processes in Washington. At the same time, it has underscored their extremely limited military capacity to act. Despite all the lip service paid by Europe to developing more strategic will to shape the world, the Western failure in Afghanistan is also an expression of the erosion of Europe's strategic culture that has been taking place for years. This (bitter) self-awareness should finally give Europeans sufficient reason to end their 'business as usual' policy.

Strategic Priorities – Less is More:

It is imperative for Germany and its European allies to play an active role in shaping NATO’s new strategic concept. In order not to dilute the content of the Alliance’s strategic reorientation, the European allies would have to give some thought to those core strategic priorities which, in their view, will play a central role in a new 'transatlantic bargain'.  The list of security policy issues currently on the negotiating table in Brussels is long - far too long and all over the place. Topics such as climate protection or the creation of new command structures for military capability programs divert from the Alliance's core strategic tasks. Instead, NATO's European allies should focus on security provision in the Euro-Atlantic area and in Europe's immediate neighbourhood.

This includes the political relationship with Moscow and ensuring effective defence and deterrence capabilities against Russia; actively dealing with the volatile security situation in Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova, readjusting security partnerships with countries in the Balkan region; and risks such as illegal migration and terrorism threats on the alliance’s southern flank.

An actionable European pillar in NATO:

In order to give more than rhetorical weight to a strengthened European pillar within the Alliance, closer strategic cooperation between Berlin, London, and Paris within the NATO framework would be useful. Although the relationship between Paris and London is currently strained by AUKUS, these three countries form an important core group within the European camp without whose close cooperation Europe will not be able to increase its ability to act. Building on the existing E3 format, the three governments could promote both the political dimension and practical and military cooperation within the European pillar. Of course, the NATO E3 format would need to be flexible and include other alliance members where desired; especially those countries in Eastern Europe that are relatively suspicious of this triad or those that are in principle open to thematic groupings.

Among the most important political impulses that could emerge from a European core group are the more than necessary synchronization of the EU Strategic Compass and NATO's new Strategic Concept; concrete proposals for shaping the security policy of the Euro-Atlantic region; and the development of a new military burden-sharing formula. 

Rethinking Burden-Sharing:          

For the foreseeable future, Europe will not be able to defend itself without U.S. conventional and nuclear capabilities. Nor will it be able to conduct independent robust crisis management operations without U.S. core capabilities. The proposal currently in discussion at the EU level to develop an "Initial Entry Force" of about 5,000 soldiers in the future for an "immediate, short-term deployment scenario" does little to change this. Similarly, the demand of EU foreign affairs representative Borrell and some European defence ministers that Europeans must invest more in 'key military capabilities' unfortunately belongs to the 'déjà vu' category. There is truly no shortage of concrete findings of military capabilities that Europeans lack. That the Europeans need to spend more on defence if they want to become militarily more independent of Washington is by now a more than worn-out truism. This also applies to the mantra-like repeated emphasis on NATO's 2% rule. In order to gradually increase their military contribution within the alliance, the Europeans would have to rethink their traditional notions of burden sharing. There are several options to do so.

They range from the possibility of providing operational relief to the U.S. ally, for example, by providing larger European troop contingents in the Baltics and Poland (VJTF) or in Kosovo, where U.S. soldiers have served under the KFOR flag for more than 20 years. Although the NATO mission in Kosovo has been reduced in recent years, Americans still provide the lion's share of troops. Why can't the Europeans in the Alliance take over this task entirely?

Another possibility would be to bundle particular military capabilities of individual Europeans more closely into core capabilities. One example would be the British Carrier Strike Group, which, along with its French, Spanish, and Italian counterparts, could form the core of a strengthened European maritime and amphibious capability. Or the Franco-British Combined Joint Expeditionary Force (CJEF), which could become a new command framework for coalition of the willing operations. 

It would also be an important political signal if the Europeans in the alliance decided to set and work toward their own level of ambition in the future. And even if the discussion in Europe is difficult and unpopular: the question of the future of the nuclear umbrella would at least have to be addressed.

Whatever individual steps can be taken to strengthen the political and military capacity for action of the Europeans in NATO; the discussion about this should be at the centre of the strategic self-positioning in Germany. Courageous steps and decisive impulses from the new German government are required now, not cautious small talk. For the foreseeable future, Europe will need highly modern troops equipped with new technologies, capable of rapid deployment and robust action, in order to achieve a minimum level of autonomous military readiness. This is a realization one can confidently pre-empt a still pending post-Afghanistan reflection process.

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