Taliban patrol the city of Herat after taking control in Herat, Afghanistan on August 18, 2021 as the Taliban take control of Afghanistan after 20 years.
Mir Ahmad Firooz | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
At the end of the worst week of President Joe Biden’s young presidency, this is the question he must answer urgently: “Of all the problems that his decision to withdraw Afghan troops has generated, which is the most important?” ?
Let us put aside for the moment Washington’s ever-popular blame game of who is responsible for failing to anticipate the rapid Taliban takeover and the collapse of the democratically elected Afghan government and its military. Or why the Biden administration did not better facilitate the safe evacuation of American citizens and their endangered Afghan allies.
It will be crucial over time to digest the lessons learned from our last 20 years in Afghanistan – so that we do not repeat the many mistakes that have been made. However, even this discussion must take a back seat to the urgency of addressing the immediate risks, their implications, and decisions that could control the damage.
The most compelling answer to the question of what Biden “dares not ignore” in Afghanistan falls roughly into three categories: likely terrorist resurgence alongside the urgent need to decide whether to work with or against the Taliban.
Chief among all of these is the existential threat to Biden’s most inspiring and reassuring account to allies and other democracies that the United States is once again a reliable ally and partner, following the uncertainties that grew among them during the Trump administration.
The consequences of this risk would outweigh any others posed by the situation in Afghanistan at a time that Biden himself called a “turning point” in history, defined by a systemic struggle between democracy and autocracy.
“We are in the midst of a fundamental debate about the future and direction of our world,” Biden told a receptive virtual audience Feb. 21 at the Munich Security Conference, grateful for this embrace. America is back “allies after the cold shoulder of former President Donald Trump’s” America First “agenda.
“We are at an inflection point,” Biden told them, “between those who argue that, given all the challenges we face – from the Fourth Industrial Revolution to a global pandemic – that autocracy is the best way forward… and those who understand that democracy is essential, essential to meet these challenges. “
The danger now is that Biden will face a different kind of inflection point, where Democratic allies’ doubts about the reliability of the United States grow, where the fragile Afghan democracy becomes a hostile theocracy, and where adversaries test more. Washington’s determination in places like Ukraine for the Russians or Taiwan for China.
“At some point, the White House may not even remember its supporters in Kiev,” Nikolai Patrushev, Vladimir Putin’s senior national security adviser, said in an interview. He added that the Ukrainians should not rely on the Americans because one day they would abandon it like they did for Afghanistan.
The Global Times, which often serves as the spokesperson for Chinese leaders, put forward the notion of the unreliability of the United States in an editorial on Monday: “Once a war breaks out in the Taiwan Strait, the the island’s defense will crumble in a matter of hours, and the US military won don’t come and help. ”
China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency wrote, “Following the blows of the global financial crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic, the decline of US hegemony has become an undisputed reality. Its failure in Afghanistan is a another turning point in this downward spiral. “
It’s no surprise that Russia and China are making the most of Afghanistan in their psychological operations and propaganda. More worrying, however, are the doubts among America’s staunchest allies. Many of them had been deeply relieved by Biden’s election. Now they are complaining that their countries, some of which had troops in Afghanistan dependent on the US partnership, were not consulted until Biden announced in April of the troop withdrawal.
As unsettling as Trump’s rhetoric toward his allies is, his administration’s actions were often reassuring. The reverse is true in the case of the Biden administration, where the rhetoric has been reassuring but the unilateral actions destabilizing, said a European ambassador.
Lord George Robertson, who was NATO Secretary General when the alliance on September 12, 2001, first invoked Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty, stating that the terrorist attack on the previous day against the United States would be seen as an attack on the 19 alliance countries.
“There was a unique moment of solidarity,” he told the Atlantic Council on Friday. “I felt proud of the organization I had the privilege of leading at the time. My feeling this week is the opposite. I don’t feel proud. I’m ashamed, because this solidarity seems to have disappeared. in (in Afghanistan) together and we all come out of it together seems to have been completely lost. “
He explained that everything that had been accomplished in the past two decades was under threat – the elimination of the terrorist threat, the education of women and girls and progress towards, if not a Western democracy, a more civilized Afghan normalcy. and more tolerant.
The alliance solidarity of the day, said Lord Robertson, “was crushed by the President of the United States’ unilateralism, and I regret that because I have known Joe Biden for many, many years, and that is a man of wisdom and talent that he is But this reckless act has damaged and weakened NATO in a way that we will find it difficult to recover. “
In December, shortly after Biden was elected president, I argued, “Joe Biden has this rarest opportunity that history offers: the chance to be a transformative foreign policy president.
This was true because of Covid and its global economic threat. This was true because of the need to better manage relations with China. Mainly, this was true because the allies of the United States were eager to turn the page on the Trump administration and restore common cause among the main democracies.
It never struck me back then that Afghanistan may become the biggest obstacle to Biden’s ability to play this historic role. But that’s where we are today.
Biden must bring competence and humanity to the Afghan evacuation efforts. He must deal with the consequences of the Taliban takeover and the potential terrorist threat, while dealing with China’s generational challenge and authoritarian resurgence.
He should start by making it clear with actions, not just rhetoric, that he intends to work closely together on all matters of common concern – whether it be defining Chinese policy or l engagement of the Taliban – with the allies it neglected leaving Afghanistan.
Frederic kempe is President and CEO of the Atlantic Council.