Europe Should Drop the Act on Afghanistan

The region is stuck believing in a past that never was and a future it doesn’t have the will to bring about.

Boris Johnson walks alongside British troops.
Dan Kitwood / AFP / Getty

The only thing worse than the American foreign-policy establishment glossing over 20 years of failure and defeat to blame Joe Biden for the loss in Afghanistan is the myopia of the British and European establishments joining in.

Ever since the Taliban suddenly returned to power weeks ago, we in Europe have been treated to an almost daily diet of indignation from generals, politicians, diplomats, and commentators on this side of the Atlantic decrying the president’s apparent betrayal and fulminating about American decline, lack of commitment, and selfishness.

Britain’s defense secretary, Ben Wallace, questioned whether a country that wasn’t prepared to “stick at something” was any longer a superpower. Tony Blair accused Biden of basing his foreign policy on “imbecilic” campaign slogans. In Parliament, Theresa May demanded to know whether her successor as prime minister, Boris Johnson, had spoken with the secretary-general of NATO about the possibility of putting together an alternative coalition capable of continuing the alliance’s presence in Afghanistan without the United States.

On the continent, there was a similar outcry. In Germany, Angela Merkel said the collapse in Afghanistan was a “bitter event,” while the chair of the German Parliament’s foreign-relations committee said Biden had made a “serious and far-reaching miscalculation.” The European Union’s high commissioner for foreign affairs, Josep Borrell, wrote in The New York Times that Europe should stand on its own two feet, free from its American nanny, whose attention seemed to be drifting.

There is some truth to these complaints: The Obama-Trump-Biden era may come to be seen as a period of American retrenchment, transitioning from a world of U.S. supremacy to one of great-power rivalry. Biden’s decision will also lead to legitimate concerns across Europe—including in Britain—about the need for more independence from America’s security umbrella.

Still, many of these complaints are almost indigestible in their fatty self-righteousness. For a British defense secretary to complain about American commitment takes some gall. The U.S. seems some way off from coming to terms with the scale of its strategic and operational defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan, but Britain appears to be even more deluded: Almost entirely absent from the debate in Britain is any serious acknowledgment about the country’s own defeats within the wider story of Western catastrophe. In both of Britain’s major operations over the past 20 years—in Basra, Iraq, and Helmand, Afghanistan—the country had to be bailed out by the Americans.

These are all not, to be fair, universally held views. Although there is frustration with the Biden administration inside the U.K. government, some close to Johnson acknowledge that the events in Kabul are the culmination of decades of Western failure—in which Britain played a prominent and ignominious role. One figure, who like others I spoke with requested anonymity to candidly discuss government deliberations, told me Britain’s failures were not just over whether to join the U.S.-led interventions, but deeper. Iraq, this official said, was a “humiliation” for Britain, only to be followed up by difficult years of battles in Afghanistan in which British forces made little-to-no headway.

Yet still we read accounts from disillusioned former diplomats who conclude that the disaster in Kabul has exposed Johnson’s “delusions of grandeur,” rather than the rest of the two previous decades in which Britain tried and failed—twice—to pacify, govern, and transform two very poor parts of the world, with the help of the U.S.

Of all the complaints in London—which include that Britain was not fully apprised of the speed of the American withdrawal, that insufficient heed was paid to the risks of a Taliban return, and that the U.S. could and should have stayed longer once it became clear the Afghan government could not cope—the most absurd is the idea that Britain might have corralled a coalition to continue NATO’s presence in Afghanistan without the United States. Britain did not have the commitment and wherewithal to make a success of its own, smaller interventions within the wider American invasions, let alone the international clout and public support to take over where the Americans had failed. Only Britain and France are serious military players in Europe. And even working together, they couldn’t topple Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi without American hand-holding.

Which brings us to gripes from the continent. European complaints about American commitment are just as hard to swallow as those emanating from Britain. French combat troops pulled out of Afghanistan by 2012. For Germany, just being in Afghanistan was a major step, but the country was hardly a central player. Even now, as they talk about commitment, the French are pulling out of their own mission in the Sahel.

To read Borrell’s piece in the Times is to understand the paucity of ambition that still dominates in Europe. Although the U.S. has certainly retrenched over the past decade, following the failed years of intervention after 2001, Europe remains trapped in a state of Peter Pan–like infancy. Borrell’s declared goal is for the EU to create a pan-European force of 5,000 capable of securing an airbase. Implicit in the ambition is the acknowledgment that today, there is no coordinated European force capable of such a limited objective.

The truth is that Biden didn’t screw over the Brits and the Europeans; he just brutally reflected the reality of the world he inherited, one in which 20 years of American commitment had failed. By ending the war the way he did, he is also part of that failure. But it is Europe, so fond of trumpeting its own sophistication, that is living in a made-up world: stuck believing in a past that never was and a future it doesn’t have the will to bring about.