Afghanistan Should Serve as a Wake-Up Call to Europe | Opinion

The U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan last month was a major wake-up call to leaders, ministers and policymakers in Europe—or at least it should have been.

The belated conclusion of Washington's 20-year war in the Central Asian nation said a lot about the futility, high expense and utter hopelessness of the U.S. mission there. But it also exposed Europe's own fecklessness, for even if European governments wanted to remain in Afghanistan after U.S. forces departed, they simply couldn't.

NATO itself, the so-called greatest alliance in the world, is almost totally dependent on the United States for its operations. It's not beyond the pale to question whether NATO would survive without the assets, attention and diplomatic heft the U.S. provides. Unfortunately, Afghanistan is only one case study.

Ten years ago, when NATO was leading an air campaign against Muammar Gadhafi's regime in Libya, the alliance's inventory of strike aircraft and laser-guided munitions started running low within weeks. France's eight-year counterterrorism campaign in the Sahel region of Africa would have ended long ago if it wasn't for Washington's intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support. The European Union, which leads a security and training mission there, often looked like a bit player in its own military operation. Europe's griping over a lack of U.S. consultation on Afghanistan is just one more chapter in what seems like a never-ending story of European leaders more interested in lecturing than in actually doing something, anything, to make themselves relevant.

It's clear some European officials recognize the gravity of the situation. Talk of the EU developing its own military capacity, separate and apart from the United States, was making waves throughout the continent long before the U.S. drawdown from Afghanistan. The talk, though, has accelerated since that drawdown went into effect. Addressing the European Parliament on Sept. 15, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen remarked that "Europe can—and clearly should—be able and willing to do more on its own." In The New York Times weeks earlier, EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell wrote that Europe "must invest more in its security capabilities and develop the ability to think and act in strategic terms"—perhaps by creating a European rapid response force of around 5,000 troops that could deploy during an emergency. German Foreign Minister Heiko Mass summarized Europe's predicament to the German website Der Spiegel on Aug. 24: "The reality is that the Americans decide a lot of things and we follow because we are not at all capable of carrying out difficult international missions without the United States."

European policymakers are clearly rattled. Nobody likes to look incompetent or powerless, which in the realm of international relations can tempt adversaries and competitors to test the envelope. But this isn't the first time Europe has been fretting about its own weakness. For decades now, European officials have understood their limitations and have even proposed remedies to plug them. The lack of European military capacity isn't a new issue; 23 years ago, French President Jacques Chirac and British Prime Minister Tony Blair released a five-point statement on the need to boost the European Union's autonomy so Europe as a whole could transform into a global player. In 1999, the EU agreed to establish a force of 50,000-60,000 military personnel that would have the ability to deploy to a conflict zone within two months. In the early 2000s, EU ministers worked on a concept that would form two joint European battlegroups of 1,500 personnel each, which would theoretically deploy on short notice. Those proposals, however, have expired on the shelf.

An Afghan boy stands next to Taliban
An Afghan boy stands next to members of the Taliban in front of the Pul-e-Charkhi prison in Kabul on Sept. 16, 2021. BULENT KILIC/AFP via Getty Images

If European governments were short on resources, one could excuse them for not fully implementing these ideas. But let's be real: Europe is one of the wealthiest regions on the planet, with NATO-Europe boasting a $25 trillion economy. The continent is enjoying its fourth decade of peace and prosperity, with the principal external threat being a Russia that is more proficient at pumping oil and hacking computer networks than it is in providing for its population. For Europe, the issue holding back the implementation of strategic autonomy (particularly in the military realm) isn't a lack of resources—it's the lack of political will.

This is a problem not only for Europe, but also for the United States, which is frequently used as a crutch by European capitals whenever an international dispute happens to arise. By and large, U.S. officials have been willing to heed the call, even as they continue to lecture the Europeans about not standing up for themselves and acting more proactively—particularly in its own neighborhood. Yet by doing this, Washington is playing the role of chief enabler to European helplessness.

Business as usual is clearly unsustainable at a time when U.S. forces are already spread thin. What U.S. officials should do is stop being an enabler and start incentivizing Europe to get out of its funk. As MIT professor Barry Posen wrote, this would require Washington to challenge conventionality by reassessing its approach toward defending Europe and engaging in some introspection about whether the current U.S. force posture of 70,000-80,000 troops is truly necessary. In short, NATO needs a new division of labor more suitable for the post-Cold War world, one in which the U.S. is the final insurance provider of Europe's defense rather than the first-responder.

The most effective way to push Europe into becoming more self-sustainable, if not independent, is for the U.S. to do less on the continent.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.