Afghanistan wasn’t just America’s 20-year war. It also belonged to US allies.
“This has been above all a catastrophe for the Afghan people. It’s a failure of the Western world and it’s a game changer for international relations,” the European Union’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell told an Italian newspaper Monday, according to the Washington Post.
“Certainly,” he continued, “we Europeans share our part of responsibility. We cannot consider that this was just an American war.”
As President George W. Bush said in October 2001 while announcing airstrikes against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the US had the “collective will of the world” behind its mission in Afghanistan. (Iraq, of course, was a different story.) The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has invoked Article 5 — the common-defense clause — only once in its history, after the 9/11 attacks. More than 51 NATO members and partner countries sent troops to Afghanistan, with a combined 130,000 troops at the deployment’s peak.
NATO’s combat mission ended in 2014, but coalition troops remained to help train and advise Afghan security forces. Even as some countries wound down their military presence in the later years of the war, a total of 1,145 allied troops died in Afghanistan of the approximately 3,500 service members killed.
The United States, starting with Donald Trump, and continuing with Joe Biden, made clear the plan to withdraw from Afghanistan. But the rapid collapse of the Afghan government and the swiftness of the Taliban takeover turned that departure into chaos. The United States looked blundering and inept, and it dragged its allies down with it. Some countries struggled to evacuate their personnel and Afghan associates as the situation around the Kabul airport worsened. All had to reckon with the reality that after 20 years, and lives lost, and billions spent, little was left to show for it.
That has led to recriminations in London and Berlin and Brussels, directed at leaders there, and at the United States. “Was our intelligence really so poor?” former British Prime Minister Theresa May asked in Parliament earlier this month. “Was our understanding of the Afghan government so weak? Was our knowledge on the ground so inadequate? Or did we just think we had to follow the United States and on a wing and a prayer it would be all right on the night?”