The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Withdrawal from Afghanistan forces allies and adversaries to reconsider America’s global role

In front of a Taliban flag, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid, center, speaks at his first news conference in Kabul on Aug. 17. (Rahmat Gul/AP)

President Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan has triggered a globe-spanning rethink of America’s role in the world, as European allies discuss their need to play a bigger part in security matters and Russia and China consider how to promote their interests in a Taliban-led Afghanistan.

Biden’s defiant address to the nation on Monday, when he stood “squarely” behind his decision to pull out U.S. troops, also renewed one of the most hotly contested debates of the post-9/11 era: Would a withdrawal from Afghanistan convey weakness, provoke aggression and shatter America’s ability to lead on the international stage, or would it reflect a sound realignment of the national interest, put the country on better footing to deal with the new challenges of the 21st century, and clarify to allies and adversaries what the United States is and is not willing to expend resources on?

In the European Union, which held an emergency session of foreign ministers on Afghanistan on Tuesday, officials offered rare criticism of Washington for risking a flood of refugees to their borders and the return of a platform for terrorism in Central Asia.

From Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, here's what leaders around the world said about Afghanistan's collapse. (Video: The Washington Post)

“This kind of troop withdrawal caused chaos,” Latvia’s defense minister, Artis Pabriks, said in a radio interview Tuesday, noting the demise of long-term nation-building projects and how the decision to withdraw was essentially foisted on Europeans. “This era is over. Unfortunately, the West, and Europe in particular, are showing they are weaker globally.”

Germany’s conservative candidate to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel, Armin Laschet, on Tuesday called the withdrawal of forces “the greatest debacle that NATO has experienced since its foundation.”

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In China, where the U.S. withdrawal is seen as creating both risks and opportunity, Foreign Minister Wang Yi told U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a phone call that the rapid departure of U.S. troops caused a ­“severely adverse impact.”

He also drew broader implications from the pullout, saying it showed America’s inability to transpose a foreign model of governance to a country with different cultural and historical attributes.

Longtime critics of the war in Afghanistan say claims about lost U.S. resolve and credibility ring hollow.

“Deciding not to keep fighting an unwinnable war for a less-than-vital interest hardly means the United States will not fight when the stakes are higher,” said Stephen Walt, a scholar of international relations at Harvard University. “On the contrary, ending the long and futile war in Afghanistan will allow Washington to focus more attention on bigger priorities.”

In his remarks to the nation, Biden latched on to the need to dislodge the United States from costly quagmires in an era of big-power competition.

“Our true strategic competitors, China and Russia, would love nothing more than the United States to continue to funnel billions of dollars in resources and attention into stabilizing Afghanistan indefinitely,” he said.

Biden said the United States could continue to disrupt terrorist organizations with air power.

Although history could vindicate Biden’s order, his administration faces difficult questions about squaring the decision with its near-constant refrain that human rights and support for allies will be “at the center of U.S. foreign policy.

Those statements were often designed to create a contrast with the Trump administration, which denigrated European allies and cozied up to authoritarian-leaning governments in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Hungary and Brazil.

Critics of Biden’s policy seized on that rhetoric as the Taliban swept into Kabul and many women and girls sheltered at home in fear of a return to the militants’ harsh rule that had banned women from education and work when the Taliban was last in power.

“Whatever happened to ‘America is back’?” said Tobias Ellwood, who chairs the Defense Committee in the British Parliament, noting Biden’s promise to rebuild alliances and restore America’s place in the world.

After Afghanistan’s fall, the blame game begins

Part of the confusion stems from the mix of ideologies inside the Biden administration, in particular, longtime advocates of humanitarian interventions such as Blinken and USAID Administrator Samantha Power, who routinely speak about the importance of human rights.

The outlook stands in contrast with Biden’s skepticism of the military, which was apparent during his time as vice president, when he argued against the ambitious troop surge that Pentagon leaders were proposing in 2009 to check a Taliban resurgence. Biden, warning President Barack Obama against letting the top brass “jam” him, unsuccessfully argued for a much leaner mission narrowly focused on blocking threats against the U.S. homeland.

But on issues involving other elements of American power, like diplomacy or trade, Biden has articulated a more ambitious view, seeking to take greater risks to advance human rights. His administration has repeatedly called out China for what it views as a campaign of genocide against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, for instance.

“Those things generally coexist without too much tension,” said a former defense official familiar with his thinking who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly. “In Afghanistan, there was a trade-off.”

Biden’s views, and those of some of his aides, were also heavily informed by the wrenching debates over intervention in Libya and Syria during the Obama administration.

“One of the realities that has been realized in the past two decades is that advancing human rights policy through military intervention is extremely difficult,” said Stephen Pomper, who served as a senior White House official for human rights during the Obama administration and is now acting policy director at the International Crisis Group.

He pointed to the 2011 intervention in Libya, which was intended as a shield for those rising up against dictator Moammar Gaddafi but which has been followed by a decade of chaos and insecurity. That lesson is also apparent in Afghanistan, where despite important gains in health and women’s rights, the long U.S.-backed effort was unable to secure lasting peace.

“That’s the lived experience of a lot of people who are now at the top of the foreign policy hierarchy in this administration,” Pomper said.

Brian Katulis, a scholar at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, said the administration has at times reacted to events at home and abroad rather than articulating an overarching ideology.

“That raises the question, ‘What do you stand for when the chips are down?’ ” he said.

On Tuesday, world powers began adjusting to the new reality of Taliban rule as the group’s de facto leader, Abdul Ghani Baradar, arrived in the country for the first time in more than a decade.

At a news conference in Kabul on Tuesday, Taliban leaders offered conciliatory messages — met with skepticism by some officials and analysts — promising not to discriminate against women or to seek control of the media, and suggesting that those who worked with the previous government and allied forces would be “pardoned.”

With the Biden administration still “taking stock” of whether it will officially recognize the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan, other countries began staking out their own approach.

Russia, which has long-established ties to the Taliban but does not officially recognize it, praised the group on Monday. “The situation is peaceful and good and everything has calmed down in the city. The situation in Kabul now under the Taliban is better than it was under [President] Ashraf Ghani,” said Dmitry Zhirnov, the Russian ambassador to Afghanistan.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, meanwhile, said his government had “no plans” to recognize the Taliban government.

State Department spokesman Ned Price said Monday that the United States would decide whether to recognize its rule only after it demonstrates a willingness to govern inclusively and prohibit terrorists from operating on its soil.

“We are still taking stock of what has transpired over the past 72 hours and the diplomatic and political implications of that,” Price said.

Liz Sly in London contributed to this report.