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Did the Afghanistan exit diminish U.S. credibility among its allies? Probably not.

Prolonged wars make allies nervous, our research on Vietnam shows.

- August 31, 2021

In the wake of last month’s sweeping Taliban victory in Afghanistan, pundits and politicians have asserted that America’s allies around the globe now know that the United States will not have their back. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) cautioned, “What does that say to friends of America around the world? You can’t depend on us. When we turn our back on you, you’re in trouble.” Chinese propagandists have said much the same, with a pointed reference to Taiwan.

America’s allies also criticized the U.S. decision. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s potential successor called the U.S. departure “the biggest debacle that NATO has suffered since its creation.” E.U. foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell Fontelles called the withdrawal “a catastrophe for the Afghan people, for Western values and credibility and for the developing of international relations.’’

Half a century ago, amid the 1975 fall of Saigon, critics similarly charged that South Vietnam’s collapse would lead U.S. allies to question America’s commitment to their security. But that logic was flawed in the 1970s, and it is flawed today.

Our research suggests that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan doesn’t herald a crisis of credibility. To be sure, NATO and other allies are concerned about both human rights and counterterrorism in a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. But what they really care about is a United States that has the resources and will to uphold its core alliance commitments and the discipline to focus intently on major common challenges.

Afghanistan’s security forces unraveled this month. What broke their seven-year stalemate with the Taliban?

The chaotic exit prompted concerns

Despite the chaos surrounding America’s drawdown in Afghanistan, European leaders have not generally agonized over U.S. credibility. After all, most agree with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg that “the intent was never to stay in Afghanistan forever.”

There have been complaints and concerns — about the Biden administration’s inadequate consultation with its allies, about the abandonment of Afghans who had aided the NATO mission, and about how the new Taliban regime might treat women and girls. But, from a European standpoint, these were not sufficient reasons for the United States to stay in Afghanistan.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told Parliament, “it is an illusion to believe that there is appetite among any of our partners for a continued military presence or for a solution imposed by NATO in Afghanistan.” German policymakers focused on the “in parts overly hasty” withdrawal and the “breathtaking pace” of the Taliban’s victory, but did not take away the lesson that “eventually, America cuts and runs.”

While the Biden administration’s right-wing critics continue to fixate on claims that America’s alliance credibility has diminished, the actual response among allies has been far more temperate. As we found in our analysis of the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, America’s allies care far more about whether the United States will back its core alliance commitments. Close analysis of American allies’ official statements, private conversations and declassified documents during the Vietnam War revealed their intense concern that the United States was squandering its resources and energies on an endless war.

The U.S. couldn’t build Afghanistan a democracy. That rarely works.

Why prolonged interventions raise alliance concerns

For smaller allies, a big concern is that when push comes to shove, their great-power patron may not come to their aid. But sustaining a faltering military mission isn’t the way to put allies’ minds to rest, our research uncovered. Prolonged interventions stoke allies’ anxieties — as mission creep sets in, casualties mount, resources are frittered away and national will stumbles.

The Vietnam War, we find, did not hearten U.S. allies around the world by powerfully signaling resolve. Just the opposite: It made America’s allies outside the region nervous that the United States might retreat from its commitments to them.

The Biden administration’s critics seem to suggest that anything short of an open-ended commitment to Afghanistan would raise doubts about U.S. credibility as an ally. But our research shows that allies are reassured by limited military interventions properly aligned with strategic interests. Knowing when to get in, what effort to expend and when to get out demonstrates the strategic discipline that allies prize.

Knowing when to leave also preserves resources for the defense of core allies. A costly, protracted war makes it more likely that the intervener will not be able to stomach another. It was the draining war in Vietnam — not its frenzied end — that frayed relationships with key European allies.

Retrenchment may be reassuring

The Biden administration has argued that pulling out of Afghanistan would allow the United States to focus on the most significant threats to national security. “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,” Biden pointed out.

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America’s standing with its European allies has been faltering since the 1990s. Whether it was Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld’s questioning of the worth of “old Europe,” President Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia” or President Donald Trump’s public dithering over the value of NATO, many U.S. signals were not reassuring.

Staying the course in Afghanistan might have temporarily averted Taliban victory, cycles of retribution and a humanitarian disaster. But our research suggests it would have also undermined European confidence in America’s wisdom and fortitude.

And it would have strengthened the hand of those in Europe calling for greater independence from the United States. This, too, is a lesson of Vietnam. As European allies grew skeptical of U.S. credibility during the Vietnam War, they developed their own military capacities, distanced themselves from the United States and, in the case of West Germany, began reaching out to the Soviet Union.

When the United States finally pulled out of Vietnam, its allies cheered, not so quietly. We may not hear much cheering right now, given the heart-wrenching images from Kabul. But — after 20 years of war, over $1 trillion expended and the deaths of nearly 2,500 U.S. service members and another 1,100 coalition soldiers — the NATO allies are likely glad to see the United States finally draw down from Afghanistan and exercise some strategic discipline.

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Ronald R. Krebs is professor of political science at the University of Minnesota and editor in chief of the scholarly journal Security Studies. He is most recently co-editor, with Thierry Balzacq, of “The Oxford Handbook of Grand Strategy” (Oxford University Press, 2021).

Jennifer Spindel is assistant professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire. She is writing a book manuscript about the signaling effects of conventional arms transfers. Follow her on Twitter @JenSpindel.