Just two months, President Joe Biden marched through Europe, repeatedly insisting that “America is back; America is engaged.” Our friends and allies wanted to believe. Then came the debacle in Afghanistan. Now, instead of renewed trust in American leadership, European confidence in the transatlantic relationship has tanked.
The shambolic retreat from Afghanistan is more than an international embarrassment. The U.S. utterly failed to coordinate its decision to leave—or the chaotic evacuation that followed—with our partners in Afghanistan. That has created tremendous problems for them.
For starters, it left the Europeans, caught unawares, scrambling to figure out how to protect and extricate their citizens and local staff. The Germans, for example, estimated they needed to evacuate 10,000 people.
Many EU countries now fear a wave of migration from Afghanistan in the near future. This could trigger a crisis similar to 2015 when over a million refugees – mostly from Syria – headed west. According to the United Nations, about 550,000 Afghans have left their country since the beginning of 2021.
That number will only grow. Thousands of Afghans have already fled their country in recent days. Most have headed toward Pakistan or Iran. But many others will doubtless try to reach Europe. The Europeans will then face a double problem: more unregulated migration and increased health risks due to the pandemic.
Europeans are also fear a resurgence of Islamist terrorism. The Taliban have already freed several thousand prisoners, including some al-Qaeda operatives. Stung by numerous fatal terrorist attacks since the 2015 exodus from the Middle East and North Africa, Europeans easily conflate the refugee and terrorist issues.
French President Emmanuel Macron publicly fretted about the security risks of Afghan migration while in Germany, where federal elections are approaching.
In Italy, a nation swamped by refugees six years ago and hit hard by the coronavirus, turmoil has erupted within the odd-fellows coalition of parties governing the country. The founder of the Italy’s 5 Star Movement, the notoriously pro-China actor Beppe Grillo, for example, posted an article on his blog fiercely criticizing the United States on the Afghan disaster.
Greece, too, has been gripped by a strong apprehension of another refugee crisis. “We are clearly saying that we will not and cannot be the gateway of Europe for the refugees and migrants who could try to come to the European Union,” said Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi. This followed Athens’ recent announcement that it has completed a 25-mile wall on its border with Turkey.
In addition to concerns about the impact on Europe, concerns about Biden’s leadership have skyrocketed. Following Biden’s Aug. 16 address to the nation, meant to reassure Americans that everything was under control, Tory MP Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the House of Commons’ Foreign Affairs Select Committee, called Biden “shameful” for shifting the blame onto the Afghan military forces.
Josep Borrell, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs, described some of Biden’s factual claims as “arguable” and characterized the situation in Afghanistan as “a catastrophe.” Borrell has since demanded the EU to develop its own military capacity, so it will no longer have to rely on the U.S.
Armin Laschet, leader of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union, described the Afghan crisis as “NATO’s biggest mistake,” while Chancellor Angela Merkel called the fall of Kabul “bitter, dramatic and terrifying.”
Clearly, the trust relationship between the White House and European countries has weakened.
The upcoming G-7 virtual meeting will give our affronted allies another opportunity to air their disappointment with Biden, further undermining his stature. And at next month’s G20 summit Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi is already aiming to highlight two issues: the stabilization of Afghanistan and the potential migration crisis.
Absent U.S. leadership, Europeans are now adrift on future policy. Brussels certainly has no clear strategy on Afghanistan. On one hand, the EU temporarily suspended its development aid to Kabul; on the other, Borrell called for a “dialogue” with the Taliban. The head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has taken a wait-and-see attitude, saying. “We may well hear the Taliban’s words, but we will measure them above all by their deeds and actions.”
Such hesitancy is understandable. After all, the EU’s soft power-centered approach will hardly be effective in dealing with such a notoriously violent and unreliable Islamist group.
Two months ago, the European media and political leaders who had been hostile to Donald Trump celebrated Joe Biden and his “America is back” rhetoric. Now, the celebration is over. Instead, they are fretting over migration and terrorism. They worry how Beijing and Moscow may try to exploit U.S. weakness. And they wonder if they can ever trust this Administration again.
A Heritage Foundation vice president, James Jay Carafano directs the think tank’s research on matters of national security and foreign relations. Stefano Graziosi is an essayist and a political analyst who writes for the Italian newspaper La Verità and the weekly magazine Panorama.