WASHINGTON – Top U.S. national security officials will see how the failed war in Afghanistan may be reshaping America's relationships in the Middle East as they meet with key allies in the Persian Gulf and Europe this week.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin are traveling to the Gulf separately, leaving Sunday. They will talk with leaders who are central to U.S. efforts to prevent a resurgence of extremist threats in Afghanistan, some of whom were partners in the 20-year fight against the Taliban.
Together, the Austin and Blinken trips are meant to reassure Gulf allies that President Joe Biden’s decision to end the U.S. war in Afghanistan in order to focus more on other security challenges like China and Russia does not foretell an abandonment of U.S. partners in the Middle East. The U.S. military has had a presence in the Gulf for decades, including the Navy’s 5th Fleet headquarters in Bahrain. Biden has not suggested ending that presence, but he — like the Trump administration before him — has called China the No. 1 security priority, along with strategic challenges from Russia.
“There’s nothing China or Russia would rather have, would want more, in this competition than the United States to be bogged down another decade in Afghanistan,” Biden said in the hours after the last U.S. troops left.
In announcing his Gulf trip, Austin told a Pentagon news conference that staying focused on terrorist threats means relentless efforts against “any threat to the American people from any place,” even as the United States places a new focus on strategic challenges from China.
Blinken travels to Qatar and will also stop in Germany to see Afghan evacuees at Ramstein air base who are awaiting clearance to travel to the United States. While there he will join a virtual meeting with counterparts from 20 nations on the way ahead in Afghanistan.
“The secretary will convey the United States’ gratitude to the German government for being an invaluable partner in Afghanistan for the past 20 years and for German cooperation on transit operations moving people out of Afghanistan,” spokesman Ned Price said Friday.
Austin plans to start his trip by thanking the leaders of Qatar for their cooperation during the Kabul airlift that helped clear an initially clogged pipeline of desperate evacuees. In addition to permitting the use of al-Udeid air base for U.S. processing of evacuees, Qatar agreed to host the American diplomatic mission that withdrew from Kabul at war's end. The Qataris also have offered a hand to help reopen the Kabul airport in cooperation with the Taliban.
During a stop in Bahrain, Austin plans to speak with Marines who spent weeks at Kabul airport executing a frantic and dangerous evacuation of Afghans, Americans and others. Eleven Marines were killed and 15 were wounded in a suicide bombing at the airport on Aug. 26. That attack killed a total of 13 U.S. service members and scores of Afghan civilians.
The Pentagon chief also planned to visit Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and to meet with senior leaders in a region he knows well as a retired Army general and former head of U.S. Central Command with responsibility for all military operations there.
Saudi Arabia was notably absent from the group of Gulf states who helped facilitate the U.S.-led evacuation from Kabul airport. Riyadh's relations with Washington are strained over Biden’s efforts to revive a nuclear deal with Iran, among other issues. Just days before the U.S. left Afghanistan, the Saudis signed a military cooperation agreement with Russia.
Biden said his decision to get out of Afghanistan after 20 years was part of a plan to "turn the page” on an approach to foreign policy since 2001 that he believes kept the U.S. military in Afghanistan far too long. Allies in the Gulf, where extremist threats are at the doorstep, want to know what the next U.S. policy page looks like.
In Europe, too, allies are assessing what the lost war in Afghanistan and its immediate aftermath mean for their collective interests, including the years-old question of whether Europe should become less reliant on the United States.
“We need to increase our capacity to act autonomously when and where necessary,” Josep Borrell Fontelles, the high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs and security policy, wrote on Twitter on Thursday.
America's European allies in NATO had more troops in Afghanistan than did the United States when Biden announced in April that he would withdraw by September. The Europeans had almost no choice but to join the exit, given the limits of their combat power so far from home, and they were largely dependent on U.S. air transport to get out, although they did fly some of the evacuation sorties.
Some NATO allies doubted the wisdom of Biden's withdrawal decision, but it's uncertain that the Afghanistan crisis will weaken the ties that bind the United States and Europe. In an essay, two of the Center for Strategic and International Security's Europe experts — Rachel Ellehuus and Pierre Morcos — wrote that the crisis does reveal “inconvenient truths” about the trans-Atlantic relationship.
“For Europeans, it has exposed both their inability to change the decision calculus of the United States and powerlessness to defend their own interests (for example, evacuate their own citizens and allies) without the support of Washington,” they wrote.
Germany, Spain, Italy and other European nations are allowing the U.S. to use their military bases to temporarily house Afghans who were airlifted out of Kabul but have not been approved for resettlement in the United States or elsewhere. Bahrain and Qatar made similar accommodations. Together, these arrangements relieved strain on the evacuation operation from Kabul that initially was so acute that the airlift had to be suspended for several hours because there was no place to take the evacuees.