The war in Afghanistan was always a U.S.-led NATO operation, and on Wednesday, the 30-member alliance unanimously agreed to follow President Biden's lead and withdraw all its forces from the country by Sept. 11. As in the U.S., the European reaction to Biden's announcement was positively ambivalent.
The decision was "unanimous," NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in a press conference after Wednesday's closed-door meeting. "This is not an easy decision and it entails risks," he added, but "we've said for many months we face a dilemma, because the alternative to leaving in an orderly fashion is to be prepared for a long-term, open-ended military commitment with potentially more NATO troops."
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin both attended the meeting in Brussels. A European official told The Washington Post that Austin set the tone by strongly endorsing Biden's plan, referencing his military service and personal knowledge of the sacrifices NATO forces made in Afghanistan. The officials from the other member states broadly supported the plan, the official said, but there was some grumbling from the Czech Republic and Belgium.
Blinken and Austin both said publicly that the U.S. and NATO achieved their main objective in Afghanistan, neutralizing the ability of Al Qaeda to use the country as a base for terrorism.
After Al Qaeda launched an attack on the U.S. from Afghanistan, NATO invoked its Article 5 mutual-defense clause for the first time, and there are now more non-U.S. NATO troops in the country, about 7,000, than America's 2,500-strong force.
"As long as the U.S. consults, gives at least a veneer of co-decision, and withdraws responsibly enough that it doesn't leave the Europeans high and dry, then the Europeans won't be hard to deal with on this issue," Jeremy Shapiro, research director at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told the Post. "In the end, the Europeans went into Afghanistan for America and NATO; they'll accept to leave for the same reasons."