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27 August 2021

How should American credibility be judged after Afghanistan?

If US credibility can only be shown through militarily occupying another country, then perhaps it wasn’t worth much to begin with.

By Emily Tamkin

America’s British and European partners are at odds with US president Joe Biden. At a virtual meeting of the G7 leaders on Tuesday 24 August, American allies pushed Biden to extend the 31 August deadline for the US departure from Afghanistan, arguing that they could not evacuate all their citizens and allies by that date. Biden said that the risk of terror attacks was too great. (One such attack, claimed by Isis, later took place outside the airport on Thursday. An explosion killed over 100 people, including 95 Afghans and 13 US service members. At time of writing, Biden had not extended the withdrawal deadline.)

But even before the virtual summit, European officials were questioning Biden’s, and America’s, credibility. Norbert Röttgen, chairman of the German parliament’s foreign policy committee, said the withdrawal did “fundamental damage to the political and moral credibility of the West”. Armin Laschet, who is running as the CDU candidate to replace German Chancellor Angela Merkel, called the American withdrawal Nato’s “greatest debacle” yet, while Josep Borrell Fontelles, a Spanish politician serving as high representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, said it was a “catastrophe” for “credibility”. 

The official American response is that remaining in Afghanistan is not in America’s national security interest.There are other points one could make, too: Europeans could, if they chose, remain in Afghanistan, but that would arguably require more money and forces than they are willing to spend. France began its drawdown in 2012, and French combat troops have been largely absent from the country for almost a decade. Germany still does not spend 2 per cent of GDP on defence, as all Nato allies have committed to do. Nato’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan wound down in 2014. 

America’s allies and partners have every right to opine on the policy; they, too, spent billions and sent their forces to fight and die in Afghanistan. Britain sent the second-highest number of troops to Afghanistan and more than 450 members of the British armed forces lost their lives in the country. 

But here I think one should ask: how are we defining credibility? What does it mean to have a “credible” foreign policy? 

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Does it mean a country does what it says it will do? If that’s the case, then American foreign policy was credible in this instance. The United States spent two decades at war in Afghanistan. Biden then ran for president arguing that America should end its longest war. He announced in the spring of this year that the US would be leaving Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. One can – and should – criticise much about the way in which this withdrawal was carried out, and particularly the disregard for the lives of Afghans in urgent need of resettlement elsewhere. That a disproportionate number of evacuations have happened since 14 August reflects remarkably poor planning. But the withdrawal itself was not a surprise. 

Or does credibility mean that the US had to stay because its European partners wanted it to for European security interests? In other words, for the US to be a credible partner, does it need to engage in an indefinite, or even prolonged, military occupation of a foreign country? At what point could the United States have left with credibility in check? 

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Some would argue that the answer to this is “never”. But perhaps the reason for this is that the US, by its oversight authority’s own assessment, fundamentally did not understand what it was doing in Afghanistan and so ultimately lost the war. Another way of putting this is that American credibility was chipped away at in Afghanistan – but over the course of the last two decades at least as much as the last two weeks. 

More broadly, however, it is worth asking whether America’s commitments to multilateralism and to decades-long military engagements are one and the same. Is there no way for the US to work with allies and partners outside fighting wars? If, 20 years after declaring a war on terror, the US wants to try to engage more diplomatically and less militarily – is there no way to do that without being unreliable?

If American credibility can only be shown through militarily occupying another country, then perhaps it wasn’t worth much to begin with. 

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