Catastrophic rebranding of US foreign policy

Manal Lotfy , Thursday 26 Aug 2021

No agreement was reached on Western policy on Afghanistan at a G7 meeting on Tuesday, with NATO allies openly expressing their dismay at US policy

RAF personnel pack necessities for Afghan nationals arriving at RAF Brize Norton, England  photo: AP
RAF personnel pack necessities for Afghan nationals arriving at RAF Brize Norton, England photo: AP

The G7 group of countries failed to persuade US President Joe Biden to postpone the date for the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan at a virtual meeting on Tuesday, with Pentagon Spokesperson John Kirby saying there had been “no change” to the deadline of completing the evacuation by the end of the month.

Kirby added that the US believed it could complete the evacuation on time and suggested that the US and the Taliban were in agreement about the 31 August deadline for the US leaving Afghanistan.

“Without getting into details, I’m not seeing much dissonance” between US public statements and conversations with the Taliban, Kirby said. “The Taliban have been very clear about what their expectations are,” he added.

The Pentagon also announced the biggest day so far for the evacuations from Afghanistan, with Spokesman Hank Taylor saying 21,600 people had flown out of Kabul Airport over the previous 24 hours.

The apparent coordination between the two sides came after CIA Director William Burns held a meeting with Taliban leaders in Afghanistan on Monday.

Adhering to the timetable for the departure of international forces will put more pressure on relations between Washington and its European allies, which had hoped for more time to evacuate the thousands of their citizens and the Afghan citizens who had worked with them from Afghanistan.

In a brief pooled interview following the G7 virtual summit, UK’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the G7 had agreed a “roadmap for engaging with the Taliban”.  He explained he wanted to ensure safe passage for Afghans wanting to flee after the 31 August deadline.

Even before the G7 meeting, the European leaders were already planning for the worst. It had been apparent that there were significant differences between Washington and its European allies, and the time was short to bridge the gap with Washington before the meeting called by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, also chair of the G7.

Before the summit meeting, statements from European capitals differed from Washington’s position regarding extending the deadline of 31 August for the pull-out of NATO forces from Afghanistan.

While London, Paris and Berlin were urging Washington to pressure the Taliban to extend the timetable beyond this date, statements issued by the White House and the Pentagon said that Washington would deal with the question of an extension on a day-to-day basis and it was not yet at the point to seek a change of the deadline with the Taliban.

The Taliban had warned there would be “consequences” if Washington sought to extend the deadline. It wants all foreign evacuations from the country completed by the 31 August deadline.

Taliban Spokesperson Suhail Shaheen said that “it’s a red line…If they extend it, that means they are extending the occupation while there is no need for that.”

US officials, including Biden, hinted that delaying the departure of international forces from Afghanistan was fraught with risks. Among their fears was a possible attack by the Islamic State (IS) group or Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan on US forces.

“The British position is that we want to stay longer if it is possible to do so,” said UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace. But he said the 1,000 British troops at Kabul Airport would be unable to keep up the operation when the much larger American contingent left.

Wallace conceded there was a “low probability” that the US would be persuaded into delaying the deadline past 31 August, the deadline agreed by Biden after he inherited a peace deal between former US president Donald Trump and the Taliban.

 “I look at the public comments by President Biden, I look at the interviews given by the Taliban, I think it’s worth the G7 trying, but in the MoD [Ministry of Defence] we’re planning for the worst and hoping for the best,” Wallace said.

He argued it would be in the Taliban’s interest to ensure the airfield remained open. “The Taliban needs trade,” he said. “It needs a population to survive, indeed, the Taliban also needs international recognition and foreign money, so I think it’s in the interests of the Taliban to keep the airport functioning.”

Germany said it was in talks with both NATO allies and the Taliban about keeping Kabul Airport open beyond 31 August.

The German government also expressed its impatience with the pace of the evacuation effort. Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the majority of local staff who worked for his country in Afghanistan had not yet left.  

The French government also believes it will be required to carry out evacuations beyond the 31 August deadline imposed by Washington. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said that “we are concerned about the deadline set by the United States on 31 August. Additional time is needed to complete ongoing operations.”

The differences between Washington and its European allies are not limited to extending the deadline for the departure of NATO forces. There were also differences over the international strategy towards the Taliban and forging a common approach to Afghanistan policy.

While Britain led the camp that wanted to threaten to impose economic sanctions against the Taliban if it violated promises to form a representative government or backtracked on pledges to respect the rights of women and girls in education and work, the US did not show any great resolve to use a carrot-and-stick strategy with the Taliban.

There is $9 billion in US banks alone belonging to the Afghan government, and some European powers argue that the US could use this as leverage to press the Taliban to cooperate with the international community.

But many in the Biden administration fear sanctions might push the Taliban to further militancy, saying that sanctions would harm the Afghan people, of which about 70 per cent of the population already lives at the poverty line.

In a significant move showing that Washington wants to engage with the Taliban, Biden sent the head of the CIA to meet the Taliban’s leader on Monday in the highest-level diplomatic encounter since the militant group took over the Afghan capital.

CIA Director William Burns met Taliban leader Abdul-Ghani Baradar in Kabul, US officials told the Washington Post. The newspaper said the talks were likely to have involved the deadline for the US military to conclude its airlift.

The G7’s inability to break Biden’s stance on the evacuation of Afghanistan has left European leaders asking whether the US is still a reliable partner.

For them, the worst consequences of the collapse of the Afghan government and the Taliban’s assumption of power are yet to come. Among the potential repercussions are increased risks from Al-Qaeda and IS terrorism and the prospects of a new refugee crisis on Europe’s borders, as happened during the Syrian Civil War.

If these repercussions materialise, Europe will pay the price because of the geographical proximity that has made it in the past face migrant crises and terrorist attacks.

“The European leaders’ assessment is that the Biden administration has created a rift in transatlantic relations that is worse than the rift created by Trump’s anti-NATO and anti-EU policies,” a senior European diplomat familiar with NATO operations in Afghanistan told the Weekly.

“Regardless of all Biden’s justifications for withdrawing the troops in such a chaotic manner, the conviction in Europe is that American leadership of the world is in retreat and that Europe can no longer protect its security and interests by relying on America. What Biden confirmed through his policies is: America first – just like Trump.” he added.

The G7 meeting was a make-or-break moment in reshaping strategy on Afghanistan. But the meeting, due to the lack of time available for discussion amid the fluidity of events on the ground, left many allies with more questions than answers.

Senior British military officers expressed anger over the US strategy, saying it exposed the hollowness of the trans-Atlantic “special relationship”.

France has reason to assume that a unilateralist US president will continue to dominate Western foreign policy and defence. The crisis in Afghanistan will only reinforce the French president’s view that Europe needs an independent foreign and defence policy.

Germany is also dismayed by the developments in Afghanistan and Biden’s decisions. Armin Laschet, candidate to succeed Angela Merkel as German chancellor, has described Kabul’s fall as “the biggest debacle NATO has seen since its foundation, and it is an epochal change that we are facing.”

Japan’s concern will be to ensure that Washington sticks to its pledge that the Afghanistan withdrawal indicates a reordering of US priorities towards competing with China in Southeast Asia. Tokyo’s fear is that the withdrawal reflects growing US isolationism.

During the G7 meeting, Biden defended the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, saying that it was one of his election promises. He echoed what he had said over the past days that America has no interest in “never-ending wars.” Instead of a foreign policy based on brutal force, Biden said he sought to enhance his doctrine of “smart diplomacy”.

For Europe and the world, non-military interventions would be a positive shift for US foreign policy, but applying this doctrine in this crisis and the Taliban being the beneficiary of it is what many are dreading in Afghanistan and worldwide.

For many, the rebranding of US foreign policy to “smart power” or “soft power” in this context has been catastrophic.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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