BERLIN â€” Until Sunday, Europe thought Joe Biden was an expert on foreign policy.
Now, the American presidentâ€™s decision to allow Afghanistan to collapse into the arms of the Taliban has European officials worried he has unwittingly accelerated what his predecessor Donald Trump started: the degradation of the Western alliance and everything it is supposed to stand for in the world.
Across Europe, officials have reacted with a mix of disbelief and a sense of betrayal. Even those who cheered Bidenâ€™s election and believed he could ease the recent tensions in the transatlantic relationship said they regarded the withdrawal from Afghanistan as nothing short of a mistake of historic magnitude.
â€œI say this with a heavy heart and with horror over what is happening, but the early withdrawal was a serious and far-reaching miscalculation by the current administration,â€ said Norbert RÃ¶ttgen, chairman of the German parliamentâ€™s foreign relations committee. â€œThis does fundamental damage to the political and moral credibility of the West.â€
RÃ¶ttgen, a senior member of Chancellor Angela Merkelâ€™s Christian Democrats, is no flamethrower. He has known Biden for decades and was optimistic about his prospects.
While Merkel has avoided direct criticism of Biden, behind the scenes she has made it clear that she considered the hasty withdrawal a mistake.
â€œFor those who believed in democracy and freedom, especially for women, these are bitter events,â€ she told a meeting with officials from her party late Monday, according to German media reports.
In the U.K., which like Germany supported the U.S. engagement in Afghanistan from the beginning, the sentiment was similar. â€œAfghanistan is the biggest foreign policy disaster since Suez. We need to think again about how we handle friends, who matters and how we defend our interests,â€ tweeted Tom Tugendhat, the Conservative chair of the U.K. parliamentâ€™s foreign affairs committee.
At a time when some European leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron, have been pushing for the bloc to pursue a security policy less dependent on America, Afghanistan is bound to be used as evidence for why â€œstrategic autonomyâ€ is necessary.
â€œNaturally this has damaged American credibility, along with that of the intelligence services and of the military,â€ said RÃ¼diger Lentz, the former head of the Aspen Institute in Berlin.
â€œOne can only hope that the damage to Americaâ€™s foreign policy leadership can be quickly contained.â€
While dismay over the course of events in Afghanistan was widespread across Europe, it is particularly pronounced in Germany. For Germans, the Afghan campaign wasnâ€™t just about coming to an allyâ€™s aid or â€œnation-building,â€ it was about proving, both to the world and itself, that Germany had changed.
The Afghanistan mission was the first major deployment of German troops since World War II. When then-Chancellor Gerhard SchrÃ¶der asked the German parliament to approve the mission in the fall of 2001 following the September 11 terror attacks, he faced resistance from his own Social Democrats and decided to put his political survival on the line by linking the decision to a confidence vote. (SchrÃ¶der would later complain to associates that U.S. President George W. Bush never appreciated the risk he had taken, which might help explain why the chancellor refused to join the U.S. war in Iraq a year later.)
Once the troops were in Afghanistan, then-Defense Minister Peter Struck urged Germans to stand behind the mission for the long-term with what has become one of the most memorable passages in a parliamentary speech in recent decades: â€œThe security of the Federal Republic of Germany is also being defended in the Hindu Kush,â€ he said.
Over the years, Germany felt the effects of the Afghanistan mission in more ways than one. Though its troops were stationed in the relatively peaceful northern part of the country, nearly 60 German soldiers lost their lives there. The German armyâ€™s medal of valor, a rarely bestowed honor, has only ever been given to soldiers active in Afghanistan.Â
Germany also invested untold billions in Afghanistan during that period and took in thousands of refugees.
Though successive German governments remained committed to the Afghanistan operation, it was always controversial.
That tension filtered into the cultural sphere, including the 2014 film â€œInbetween Worlds,â€ the story of a German soldier and his Afghan interpreter.
â€œSometimes I ask myself,â€ the soldier tells the young interpreter after surviving an attack, â€œdo we ever make a difference or is it just a fucking waste?â€
Germany now has the answer.Â