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NATO is Dead Man Walking After Afghanistan Debacle

Afghanistan NATO
A Norwegian Leopard 2A4 main battle tank during Iron Wolf II in Lithuania. It involves 2,300 troops from 12 NATO Allies. The Lithuanian-led exercise is helping to train the NATO Battlegroup which consists of soldiers from Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Norway. Shot in Rukla, Lithuania.

Afghanistan’s collapse was entirely avoidable. By the time President Joe Biden entered the Oval Office, it was essentially a containment and deterrence mission. Rather than reverse the unfolding tragedy, ego trumped wisdom.

In an August 14 statement, Biden doubled down. He blamed his predecessor for accepting the deal that led to American withdrawal. This is disingenuous on three counts: First, the Taliban did not abide by the February 29, 2020 peace agreement and so Biden might easily have walked away. Second, Biden abrogated other agreements—for example, with regard to the Keystone XL pipeline and the Mexico border wall—and so his insistence that his hands are tied is dishonest. Third, he might blame Donald Trump, but Biden chose to keep on Trump’s special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad. He ended his statement by claiming a mantle of leadership. “I was the fourth President to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan—two Republicans, two Democrats. I would not, and will not, pass this war onto a fifth,” he declared.

There is no putting lipstick on a pig, however. Retrenchment and isolationism are no longer a position for fringe groups on college campuses or at think tanks like the Quincy Institute or CATO to debate; rather, they are the policy of the White House. Biden could just as easily say, “I was the 14th president to preside over an American troop presence in Korea—seven Republicans, seven Democrats. I would not, and will not, pass this war onto a fifteenth.” The same could be said for NATO and the US presence in Europe.

Perhaps in past decades, a president might claim ignorance of the human tragedy his actions caused. That is not the case in Afghanistan. The Taliban are like the Khmer Rouge and, having defeated a superpower (again, Washington spin otherwise is irrelevant outside Washington) they will act against their own people with impunity.

Under Donald Trump, the United States betrayed the Syrian Kurds. Pundits on both the left and right rationalized his action, if not applauded. The same pattern now repeats in Afghanistan, only on a larger scale.

Three and a half years ago, I debated a libertarian professor in Ohio. After some time, the conversation devolved into a broader discussion about America’s position in the world. At one point, he asked the students assembled in the hall—perhaps 125 in total—about how many would be willing to die for Lithuania. No hands went up. He then asked how many thought Americans, in general, should die to prevent Russia from again gobbling Lithuania. Two hands went up,

Biden’s decades in the Senate shaped his mindset. He follows the public mood more than leading it. He rightly gauges that Americans are tired of conflicts overseas and do not understand the importance of holding the forces at bay which would overturn the liberal order every American has enjoyed since the end of World War II.

NATO may be an institution in the West, but its core mission remains largely forgotten. There has been a generational change. Most Congressional staff—and even some congressmen—have no real memory of the Cold War. Many look at it as just another structure among many. Diplomats focus on the trees rather than the forest. Debates about member contributions trump discussion of when and whether to fight, especially as Russia turns to grey zone warfare, uses private security contractors, or simply sends in Spetsnaz absent any identifying emblems.

Biden - Putin Summit

President Joe Biden at recent NATO summit this year.

The Afghanistan withdrawal, however, and the shamelessness with which Biden, like Trump before him, turns his back on allies, should raise questions about whether America would really uphold its NATO commitments, or whether some future president would simply try to spin his or her way out of them. Certainly, the states of Eastern Europe should recognize that Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan would likely craft statements about the mistakes of NATO expansion and the need for Washington to focus on its core interests further West. Pentagon officials and diplomats might contest any lessening of America’s commitment with indignation, but the reality is NATO is a Dead Man Walking.

It is shameful to say, but if Russia were to move into the Baltics or Poland tomorrow, the White House would be AWOL. Europe would be on its own.

Michael Rubin is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor. 

Written By

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, where he specializes in Iran, Turkey, and the broader Middle East. He also regularly teaches classes at sea about Middle East conflicts, culture, terrorism, and the Horn of Africa to deployed US Navy and Marine units.

8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. Mark Abbott

    August 16, 2021 at 8:46 am

    Sadly true

  2. Scott Christie

    August 16, 2021 at 12:44 pm

    It has been proven once again that “hearts and minds” fail every time it is tried. You will always lose when fighting an enemy on their turf who has a different skin color, religion, culture or national interest other than yours.

    The successful attempts were the Nazi’s, Imperial Japan, Rome, Islamist, US to the Confederates and the Indian wars. All that said, you know what policies each of those Empires employed to suppress the population and eventually change the culture. If you are unwilling to employ those (I am not advocating that, only offering observations) then expect to lose. I am sad to ask, but am I wrong?

  3. EasyEight

    August 16, 2021 at 1:31 pm

    “Under Donald Trump, the United States betrayed the Syrian Kurds. Pundits on both the left and right rationalized his action, if not applauded.”

    No he didn’t. There is no “The Kurds” or even “The Syrian Kurds.”

    The Kurdish peoples are not a monolithic entity, they are scattered across northern Iran, Iraq, and Syria, and southern Turkey in a dozen or more factions. So there is no “The Kurds” — there’s the PKK, KCK, KPC, PYD (a PKK offshoot in Syria), Tev-Dem, YPG, YPJ, KNC, DBK, KRG, Peshmerga, KDP, and the PUK.

    Given the shifting alphabet soup of factions, forgive me if I err — but I believe the primary faction of Kurds that the US worked with in the Gulf War is the KDP, and we worked with them in the fight against Al Qaeda. They are located hundreds and hundreds of miles away from the area in Syria we’re talking about – they are in northern Iraq and still have good ties with the US.

    The Kurds the US “abandoned” in Syria are one of several Syrian Kurdish groups, and this one — the PYD is an offshoot of the PKK (militant Communist Kurdistan Worker’s Party – which is an internationally recognized terrorist group). So why were we supporting them in the first place?

    In any event, within 24 hours of the US “abandoning” them, this group announced an alliance with — the Assad Regime.

    There is no comparison to Afghanistan which is a major betrayal of those who put their trust in the US.

    IN 20/20 hindsight the US should not have stayed after the amazing success of our SpecOps campaign that allied with local factions to collapse the Taliban a matter of weeks.

    Roll forward 20 years, the Trump admin brokered a withdrawal deal between the ANG and Taliban which would have seen all US & Coalition assets and people out by May 1, with some ongoing security and financial guarantees (and air power) for the ANG.

    Then the Biden team canned the deal upon taking office, blew off the ANG’s concerns and weakened their standing, announced a Sept 11 withdrawal date (huh!?!?), then an August date — made little effort to remove US assets and plan for withdrawal, signaled weakness globally by deed and word and so the Taliban figured – heck, let’s take this puppy! When they started, no reaction. Kept going — not much reaction. So everyone associated with the ANG figured game over, I’d better run for the hills — and did.

    The Biden team and our Federal bureaucracies are criminally incompetent and clueless about diplomacy and world affairs. Our overly resourced and grossly incompetent US Intel services were surprised 20 years ago at how weak the Taliban were — and are surprised today about how strong the Taliban are and at how fast the ANG has collapsed.

    Insane. Everyone in State and Intel on the Afghan “desk” should be immediately fired, senior generals involved fired, such criminal stupidity. And yes, this type of ideological incompetence does call into question the ability for the US to maintain stable defense relationships if there’s such a sea state change or leadership with every new presidency, coupled with an unchangingly incompetent support structure.

  4. Justin McCarthy

    August 16, 2021 at 1:57 pm

    The man is simply peddling globalist / neo-conservative gibberish. When Islamic terrorism or the creation of a pan-eurasian Islamist coalition was a “possible” threat one could rationalize (barely), for public consumption, some of our quasi-occupations of Iraq, Syria, or Afghanistan. And, the notion that the US was going to be the social worker of the world and turn a thousand year old Islamic tribal society into a model post modern democratic society was laughable.

    Now that Russia is pushing its boundaries and China poses a near peer threat (much to the credit of nonsensical thinkers as above and what passes for the financial establishment of the US of A) it is time to rethink our global force posture/interests. Being pinned down in one of the historical ….holes of Central Asia with forces at risk surrounded on all sides by hostile national actors, aligned with our two near peer adversaries, is as boneheaded a move as I can imagine. There is a time when deployment of forces poses a liability and is not an asset.

    We have been fed a bunch of drivel and happy talk by the careerists running our national security establishment while the main mission in Afghanistan for the last fifteen years was “Please Lord, don’t let this pit in Central Asia blow up on my watch.” Blood and treasure flushed away so generals could get another star.

    What we are witnessing today in Afghanistan was always the Endgame. Could the exit have been more gracious? Possibly! But, it was never going to be pretty. And, the Taliban were going to re-occupy Afghanistan upon our departure. Get over it. Time to move on. Much bigger fish to fry. Hooaah!

  5. Mark Matis

    August 16, 2021 at 4:10 pm

    Good riddance to NATO!!!

    Long overdue.

  6. Michael Veritas

    August 16, 2021 at 9:44 pm

    Ukraine has no value to America. This deterring Russian aggression and spreading democracy is nonsense. We should secure our borders before worrying about other peoples borders!

  7. Jack Kennedy

    August 17, 2021 at 12:15 am

    Amen !!!

    now …. Get the US out of the United Nations!

  8. Gregory Casey

    August 25, 2021 at 12:22 pm

    What EasyEight states above about the Kurds of NE Syria is 100% correct and one of the first times I’ve read the truth about the so-called “Kurd SDF”. NE Syria has never formed any part of the Kurd Homeland that stretches from western Iran to south-east Turkey, taking in northern Iraq. The British conducted ethnographic surveys of this area of the world during the first decade of the 20th Century and a gentleman named Maunsell then published an ethnographic map of the area in 1912 which discloses that NE Syria was void and empty of Kurds apart from one area lying to the north-west of Raqqa where Kurds were known to visit annually for purposes of grazing their animals. The exercise was repeated under the French Mandate Authority for Syria in 1934 and again, the French ethnographic survey discloses that Syria was empty of Kurds. Kurds began flowing across the borders from Turkey and Iraq from the late 1970’s as Kurds who opposed the Turkish and Iraqi Governments through armed rebellion sought Refuge in Syria. It is these Kurds and their descendants who now reside in NE Syria and they represent less than 25% of the population of NE Syria. It should be remembered that the lands lying on the east bank of the Euphrates represent the Homeland of the Assyrian People who were subjected to ethnic cleansing and Genocide by the Turks between 1915 and 1922 with some Kurd Tribes acting as the Tip of the Ottoman Spear. Under no circumstances can north east Syria be ever thought of as representing any part of the homeland of the Kurds. Kurds are a mid-western Iranian & mid-eastern Turkish & northern Iraqi Tribe. They have never been any part of the lands of Syria.

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