The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan has harsh lessons for Turkey and NATO

With the withdrawal of U.S. military personnel from Kabul complete, it’s time to assess the impact on both U.S.-NATO and U.S.-Turkey relations.

Two elements of cold, harsh reality were revealed. First, the United States will act unilaterally with little regard for the opinion of other NATO members. Second, years of neglect have left most NATO members military dependent on the United States to sustain any operation of significant distance or duration.

U.S. decision making drove the actions of NATO members and partners in their planning in Afghanistan. Without U.S. forces, or the acquiescence of the Taliban, the other nations participating in the NATO training mission simply could not have retained the same presence.

Given enough time to arrange the right combination of assets from the many different members involved, a small NATO mission could possibly have been sustained. But it’s hard to imagine many wanting to remain after the United States made its intentions clear.

Anyone who thought the arrival of President Biden would bring an end to American military unilateralism should recognise that was a fantasy. From the comments by NATO members, and the G7 leaders’ statement, it is clear that U.S. allies were resigned to the end of the mission, instead lobbying U.S. President Joe Biden to extend the withdrawal deadline and allow for a more thorough evacuation of their nationals or Afghans deemed at risk from the Taliban for NATO links. 

NATO member states that hoped the pressure to increase defence spending would end alongside Donald Trump’s departure from the White House must now understand that they will not be able to depend on the United States as much as they hoped.

Turkey’s position in NATO is now even more complicated. Having pursued its own policies in conflicts such as Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh, often contrary to the consensus view in NATO, Turkish leaders will question the value of an organisation where the most powerful member can override the will of all others combined.

Like others, Turkey must consider how much to invest in further developing the capabilities for unilateral action, as it has increasingly done already.  The mismanaged U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, especially the lack of consultation with allies, will strengthen the argument within Turkey for a robust and independent defence industry.

There are dangers in this. NATO members enjoy a strong deterrent to any direct action by foreign aggressors - the mission in Afghanistan was part of the NATO invocation of Article five of the Washington Treaty calling on all members to consider an attack on one member an attack on all. Pulling away from consensus decision making might be possible for the United States, but it is highly debatable whether Turkey or any other NATO members could do likewise while remaining securely within NATO. Perhaps the loss of independence of action is balanced by the security NATO still affords Turkey, at least for the foreseeable future. 

Biden’s woeful mishandling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan simply revealed that which had become obscure over time: The United States, like all nations, will operate in its own best interests. Biden, no less than Trump, puts America first, and NATO members must spend more on their militaries if they wish to have greater say over when, where, and how to use those forces. Turkey and others must accept these realities.

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