After nearly twenty years of engagement in Afghanistan, the United States has now set in motion the process of pulling out all its forces by September of this year.
The US’ allies, many of which were caught by surprise by Washington’s announcement, are following suit. At the time of President Joe Biden’s announcement in April, the combined Allied presence in Afghanistan has dwindled to around 10,000 troops; of which, over 2,500 are American.
Though the Americans have the largest deployment of troops in Afghanistan, and provide the bulk of logistical support for other Allied troops, the US forces are highly reliant on joint cooperation between the various contingents within the international coalition. This fact is not always fully appreciated in the US, where the Afghan operation is often seen as a unilateral endeavor that has turned into an endless burden that is not shared with any of the US’ allies in Europe and Asia.
The reality is very different and has been since the start of the operation in October 2001.
The Allies joined the effort in Afghanistan to support the United States, following 9/11. Responding to the attacks, in which over 3,000 people were killed, NATO – for the first and only time in its history – invoked Article 5 of the alliance’s charter. It stipulates that an attack on one member is an attack every nation in NATO. This meant that the transatlantic alliance had to respond by supporting the country that was attacked.
The NATO allies unanimously decided that the US was attacked on 9/11 and that perpetrators were sheltered by the Taliban government in Afghanistan. This enabled practically all NATO member states and a number of non-NATO allies, such as Australia, New Zealand and Georgia, to militarily support the United States in Afghanistan for the duration.
Between 2011-2014 the Allied contributions to various US-led operations in Afghanistan at times totaled more than 40,000 troops from the UK, Germany, Italy, France, Poland, Canada, the Netherlands and dozens of others. The various nations’ militaries were responsibile for providing security and protection to the civilian population in various parts of the country.
After the Americans opted to draw down its operations nearly seven years ago, NATO’s own active mission also became lighter and changed focus from combating the Taliban to supporting and training the Afghan security forces. As the Allied forces were progressively pulling out, they often left behind costly defense equipment that was either donated to the Afghan security forces or was simply overused and destroyed throughout the duration of the operation.
For some of the less wealthy and smaller Allies, the de facto loss of equipment in Afghanistan represented a considerable expense to their defense budget and, consequently, set off major investments into the modernization of their military capabilites.
It is also important to acknowledge the human sacrifice of the Allies. During the nearly two decades of operations in Afghanistan, over 3,500 Allied troops have been killed and more than 22,000 wounded. Most of the sacrifice came from the American forces. As of May 2021, 2,355 American military personnel have been killed. A further 1,150 Allied, non-American, troops have also been killed. Practically all NATO nations made human sacrifices in Afghanistan, with the UK being the second largest contributor both in the number of troops deployed and the total amount of casualties suffered.
While American public opinion is usually aware of the British and Canadian contributions and deaths, most in the United States are woefully unaware of the human cost to the substantial French, German, Dutch and Italian forces. Moreover, hardly anybody in the US or Europe is aware of the casualties suffered by the Czech, Estonian, Georgian, Polish and Slovak contingents.
The United States went to Afghanistan to destroy Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in response to the 9/11 attacks. The motivation of the US’ allies was different and was largely guided by their sense of solidarity with their American allies.
Furthermore, most of the countries were not directly threatened by the security situation in Afghanistan. Some, in fact, greatly endangered their own national security by taking part in the Afghan mission. For example, the tiny former Soviet republic of Georgia, which today remains the third-largest troop contributor, had its best-trained combat forces tied in Afghanistan when it was invaded by Russia in August 2008.
The United States has been the anchor of security in the transatlantic space since the end of World War II. This has required a continuing amount of investment in its military presence in Europe and other parts of the globe, which is costly and sometimes may cause some resentment in the United States, itself. This became particularly apparent during the presidency of Donald Trump, who routinely complained about the scale of investment that the United States commits to in order to guarnatee the security of its fellow allies in Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East.
At the same time, however, Trump never bothered to acknowledge the Allies’ own investments into guaranteeing the US’ security, as has been the case in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the dismissive attitude towards the Allies’ contribution to the burden-sharing in Afghanistan is not limited to Trump’s circle of isolationist supporters.
Hopefully, the Biden administration will be more generous in recognizing the role performed by the rest of the Allies in Afghanistan, all of whom were driven first and foremost by their deep sense of solidarity with the United States following the tragedy of September 11th.