Historians will have time to sort through the evidence and apportion blame for the tragic end to America’s 20-year military intervention in Afghanistan. There is enough blame to share among four presidential administrations. But U.S. policymakers do not have the luxury of time. They must act quickly to mitigate the damage done to America’s global credibility and alliance leadership.
The rapid collapse of the Kabul government after the non-conditions-based withdrawal of our troops has jeopardized credible deterrence globally. U.S. President Joe Biden must now lead a multinational effort with allies to limit the damage.
Recovering from this crisis will not be easy and will require bold moves on multiple fronts. The effort will need to start in Afghanistan but must be global in nature. Those initiatives need to be fully coordinated with America’s European and Asian allies.
First, the Taliban cannot be allowed to undermine the current multinational evacuation effort or to revert to the harsh practices of their previous rule without paying a painful price. Thus far the Taliban seem to be cooperating with the evacuation of non-Afghans, but tension could arise as the Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline approaches. Similarly, the viability of Taliban promises of inclusive government, amnesty and respect for women’s rights remain to be seen. The United States and its allies still retain considerable economic, diplomatic and military leverage, and should use it to set limits for Taliban behavior.
Second, a new allied approach is needed to deal with international terrorism. For the past decade, the U.S. has led an ad hoc global coalition to defeat ISIS, which has proven remarkably successful. But just as the U.S. turned the challenge of ensuring that Afghanistan did not again become a sanctuary for international terrorists over to NATO, so it should now institutionalize this counterterrorism campaign as a formally declared NATO operation, with command and control provided by the alliance’s integrated military command and political oversight directly by the North Atlantic Council in Brussels.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has already warned the Taliban that the alliance will not allow international terrorists safe harbor, and the Taliban responded by executing an ISIS leader. Prioritizing a new NATO counterterrorism operation should be a major pillar in NATO’s new strategic concept. This initiative will ensure that our allies and partners remain fully engaged in ensuring that the original objectives of our collective efforts in Afghanistan and elsewhere are not forfeited.
Next, Russia cannot be allowed to misinterpret Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan as a lack of will to confront aggression in Europe. Such misinterpretations have led to war. To regain credible deterrence, Biden should strengthen the U.S. force posture in the front-line Baltic and Black Sea regions. For example, Biden might deploy a brigade combat team, or BCT, on a persistent rotational basis in the Baltic states. That move would reinforce the four NATO battlegroups deployed in the region. It would also bring the number of BCTs in Europe back up to four — the level of the early Obama years.
In addition, Romania’s navy should be strengthened to begin offsetting Russia’s marked naval advantage in the Black Sea. Bringing Ukraine and Georgia into the alliance will be under consideration, and at a minimum those militaries need further strengthening.
In parallel, NATO should initiate a set of confidence-building and arms-control initiatives with Russia to present Moscow with a balanced approach, consistent with its long-standing commitment to the deterrence and engagement “twin pillars” of the 1967 Harmel Report.
Fourth, America and its global allies need to design a consolidated front to meet the array of challenges posed by China. Weakened American credibility in Asia needs to be reversed. This is particularly dangerous because America’s commitments to Taiwan and to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea are somewhat vague, as was the commitment to Afghanistan’s government.
America needs help from its allies and partners, including NATO, to firm up deterrence in Asia. Greater allied participation in Asian naval exercises and strong diplomatic support for Taiwan will be needed to avoid a Chinese miscalculation.
Finally, trans-Atlantic political relations will need to be adjusted in response to the collapse of Afghanistan. Even our closest allies, including the British, believe that the withdrawal decision was taken by Washington without proper consultations. The U.S. should never cede veto power to other states over decisions affecting its own national security interests. But NATO’s “in together, and out together” pledge should have meant that our allies and partners were given a reasonable period of time to try to agree on withdrawal plans.
Even before this crisis, the European Union, led by France, has been calling for greater European “strategic autonomy.” That effort will only be magnified by the endgame in Afghanistan. The United States has resisted the call for greater European strategic autonomy, seeing it as a challenge to American leadership. Now the U.S. will need to moderate its concerns and engage with the Europeans in an open and objective dialogue as to what divisions of labor are realistic.
While true “strategic autonomy” may lie far in the future for Europe given their military capabilities, the U.S. can afford it a greater “strategic voice.” This must begin with a renewed U.S. commitment to more concrete consultative mechanisms on security issues of fundamental importance to our allies. NATO’s new strategic concept will need to embrace an agreed approach to strategic autonomy.
President Biden must “lead from the front” in initiating these mitigation efforts, but allied cooperation will be critical. For those who rely on America’s military strength for their survival, maintaining a credible United States security commitment is a vital interest. All allies will need to move beyond finger-pointing and come together to maintain international stability.
Hans Binnendijk is a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council. He formerly served as director of the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies and as the National Security Council’s senior director for defense policy and arms control. Robert Bell is a distinguished professor at Georgia Tech. He previously served as a defense adviser for the U.S. mission to NATO. He also previously held the NSC position.