The Political Fallout From the Afghanistan Debacle Is Reaching Europe

The abrupt collapse of Afghanistan’s NATO-backed government in the wake of the departure of U.S. forces cast a sharp, critical spotlight on U.S. President Joe Biden.

The abrupt collapse of Afghanistan’s NATO-backed government in the wake of the departure of U.S. forces cast a sharp, critical spotlight on U.S. President Joe Biden. But the American president was not the only Western leader who came under enormous political pressure as the scenes of mayhem outside of Kabul’s international airport played out live on television around the world. The fall of Kabul has already riled the waters across Europe, where multiple governments are struggling to defend themselves against waves of criticism.

In the Netherlands, currently still governed by a caretaker coalition months after the most recent elections, there was widespread anger and outrage at news that the Afghan employees of the Dutch Embassy in Kabul showed up at work on the day after the Taliban swept to power, only to find the offices dark and empty. Nobody had even bothered to call them as embassy staffers fled.

Social media exploded with recriminations about Dutch officials leaving “like thieves in the night.” 

It was a turn of events that led many to recall, with undeniable hyperbole, the most egregious chapter in recent Dutch history, when Dutch peacekeepers all but facilitated a massacre of Bosnian Muslims in the town of Srebrenica. Sigrid Kaag—the acting foreign minister and up-and-coming leader of D66, the second-highest vote-getter in the last election—rushed to deflect blame. Speaking to parliament, she explained that Dutch diplomats were awakened by U.S. forces in the middle of the night, and their communications equipment failed, so they couldn’t get in touch with the Afghans who had been working alongside them at the embassy. Many parliamentarians seemed unpersuaded by the explanation. 

The government also came under withering criticism from diplomats in the Kabul embassy for its failure to heed their warnings. Unnamed embassy staff were quoted by Dutch media saying that they alerted headquarters back in February that the “situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating” and that their bosses should have been prepared. “Do something for us,” one staffer recalled saying, “and please don’t wait that long, because things can change quickly here.”

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Afghans working for Sweden’s embassy in Kabul had a similar experience. Swedish journalists say the diplomatic staff abandoned the embassy and even refused to answer phone calls from their Afghan colleagues. The political fallout in Stockholm may be mooted by news that Prime Minister Stefan Lofven has just announced his resignation for apparently unrelated reasons. 

European evacuations got off in fits and starts, with the first Dutch flight returning without a single passenger after sitting on the ground in Kabul for half an hour. Kaag again shifted blame, this time to the Americans, saying would-be passengers could not get through the airport gates. Germany also had an awkward start, with just seven people aboard its first evacuation flight. By now, both the German and Dutch operations have made progress, with thousands extracted. But the political fallout is far from over, and it’s widespread.

With Germany just weeks away from a landmark election, outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel, after having been savaged in the media, acknowledged misjudging the situation. Green party leader Annalena Baerbock, a leading candidate to replace her, said, “What really upsets me is that you could see it coming.” The government had dismissed parliamentary motions aimed at facilitating evacuations of Afghan staff to Germany as recently as June. Back then, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, a Social Democrat member of Merkel’s coalition government, argued that peace talks between the now-ousted Afghan government and the Taliban might succeed. 

Trying to protect himself from the fallout, Armin Laschet—the candidate for chancellor from Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union party—is calling for an “unsparing investigation” into the failures. 

By now, the evacuation operations have made progress, with thousands extracted. But the political fallout is far from over, and it’s widespread.

In London, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his team are coming under withering criticism from all sides. Johnson recalled Parliament after the fall of Kabul, only to find himself the target of what could be called friendly fire, in addition to relentless attacks from the opposition.

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Conservative members of Parliament were merciless, strafing not only Biden but also their own party leader. Owen Paterson, a former Cabinet minister, described the collapse as the “UK’s biggest humiliation since Suez.” 

Former Prime Minister Theresa May, another prominent Tory and now a backbencher in Parliament, suggested Britain should have considered taking a leadership position to continue the Afghanistan mission with other NATO members even if Washington decided to pull out. “Was our understanding of the Afghan government so weak? Was our knowledge on the ground so inadequate?” she asked. “Or did we just think we had to follow the United States and on a wing and a prayer it would be all right on the night?”

The attacks continued after Tuesday’s virtual G-7 meeting, when Johnson and the other leaders present failed to convince Biden to extend the evacuations beyond the Aug. 31 deadline agreed upon with the Taliban.

Johnson’s position, like that of so many Western political leaders, was undercut by his own confident predictions that the Taliban would be held back by the now-defunct Afghan army. On July 8, little more than a month before those Western-backed forces vaporized, he declared that there was no military path to victory for the Taliban.

For the opposition Labour party, the Conservative government was a target-rich environment. “You cannot coordinate an international response from the beach,” fired off opposition leader Keir Starmer, addressing Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab. Both Raab and Johnson were on vacation as the Taliban swept across the country and ultimately took the Afghan capital. 

As predicted, Afghan policy has already become a factor in the domestic politics of multiple countries. Afghanistan’s fate may not be near the top of the list of concerns for Western voters, among whom support for leaving Afghanistan has been gaining ground across the political spectrum for years. But the arrival of large numbers of refugees, especially from a Muslim country, which has excited passions and garnered votes in the past, has the potential to become an enduring element of political battles for some time to come. 

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French President Emmanuel Macron has already taken criticism for playing politics with the fate of the beleaguered Afghans who will almost certainly begin fleeing their country, coming under fire for saying that France and Europe should “anticipate and protect itself from a wave of immigrants.”

The fall of Kabul was the first wave of reverberations from the new Afghan crisis. The second—the political shockwaves now smashing against Western capitals—has already started.

Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is a regular contributor to CNN and The Washington Post. Her WPR column appears every Thursday. Follow her on Twitter at @fridaghitis.

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