Reconsidering U.S. Decision-Making Within NATO After the Fall of Kabul

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With NATO, the United States often tries to have it all: U.S. leadership of the alliance and increased allied burden-sharing. Indeed, in addressing the Munich Security Conference in February 2021, President Joe Biden emphasized to allies that that the “U.S. is back” and is determined “to earn back our position of trusted leadership,” while welcoming “Europe’s growing investment in the military capabilities that enable our shared defense.”

But the recent experience in Afghanistan shows how the form that U.S. leadership takes can frustrate allies. Even as U.S. officials consulted with allied officials about Afghanistan, available accounts and Biden’s own explanations suggest that the U.S. decision was based on an assessment of U.S. interests and priorities and was not a shared decision that sought to balance allied concerns. Allies seem to have preferred a more conditions-based troop withdrawal but, once the U.S. decision to withdraw was made, allies had little choice but to end the NATO mission since they could not carry on without U.S. participation. Allies were uncharacteristically public in their criticism of the United States — the U.K. defense secretary characterized U.S. policy as a mistake, while the head of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union Party called the dilemma in Afghanistan the greatest challenge to the alliance since 1945.



Accounts of U.S. decision-making on Afghanistan since 2001 show that reports of decision-making under Biden follow the pattern of past processes: The United States tended to inform allies of U.S. decisions — which, in turn, effectively set alliance policy for the mission — rather than incorporating allied views into the U.S. decision process. As a result, allies effectively became obliged to support a NATO policy that often did not reflect their preferences and concerns. Allies’ frustration could lead them to reduce their contributions to NATO efforts in the future.

As shown in Afghanistan, the United States faces a tradeoff between incorporating allied views into U.S. decisions and compromising allies’ support for U.S. policy. If the United States is serious about strengthening alliances and burden-sharing, this may require finding ways to better incorporate allied concerns into U.S. decision-making.

How America Makes Decisions

The history of the alliance points to a range of ways in which U.S. officials have engaged with allies with differing viewpoints. For example, in the face of French opposition to a European army, the Eisenhower administration adjusted its proposed approach for the defense of Europe. By contrast, historian Timothy Andrews Sayle writes “Kennedy and his administration viewed NATO as a tool of American policy rather than a forum for reaching common cause with allies.” Following the Cold War, while European allies belatedly supported U.S. policy in the Balkans, the United States pursued the invasion of Iraq despite French and German opposition.

In Afghanistan, the United States took a leadership role and guided the overall approach to the mission from the beginning. The day after the Sept. 11, 2001 attack, NATO invoked Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty, which calls on members to treat an attack on one as an attack on all. The allies sought to offer support to the United States through the alliance. However, in the initial phase of the mission, the United States dismissed alliance-wide support and engaged only select allies. Then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld explained, “the mission determines the coalition, and the coalition must not determine the mission.” As the United States ramped up to conduct combat operations in Iraq, it sought greater assistance from allies. Rumsfeld observed that he “sought to increase the NATO alliance’s involvement in Afghanistan to lessen the burden on our troops.”

By 2006, the Taliban recovered its strength and U.S. and allied efforts to strengthen Afghan state institutions made slow progress. Robert Gates, who took over as secretary of defense in 2006, sought to convince European countries to provide more combat forces and engage in combat operations to fight the resurgent Taliban. Meanwhile, European allies favored a peacekeeping approach and economic development. Gates describes how the U.S. accommodated European concerns by agreeing to support a “comprehensive approach” that included both combat operations and civilian support for regional development and economic reconstruction. However, Rumsfeld and Gates also criticized the State Department for failing to staff civilian vacancies, which undercut the civilian component of the U.S. effort in Afghanistan. So Gates’s reported accommodation to NATO was perhaps not much of a compromise since the United States was already seeking to adopt a more comprehensive approach.

In 2009, the Obama administration engaged in a high-profile debate about whether to increase U.S. forces, which also neglected allied preferences. In August 2009, the U.S. commander on the ground, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, provided his assessment of why additional troops were needed to his U.S. superiors and other U.S. military officials, including Adm. James Stavridis, the dual-hatted commander of NATO military operations and European Command. However, Stavridis was told not to provide a copy to the NATO secretary Ggeneral. Why? Because Thomas Donilon, the deputy national security adviser, had directed that “there be no discussion of the assessment at NATO until the White House was comfortable with it.” The NATO secretary general did receive one of the five hard copies of the troop-to-task analysis that was distributed in October, a few weeks after McChrystal’s original assessment had been leaked to the Washington Post.

Based on the record of the White House debate — some 150 pages in Bob Woodward’s book, as well as accounts in Gates and President Barack Obama’s memoirs — Obama and other senior leaders seemed to focus on NATO views mostly to judge what level of troops allies might contribute rather than to take into account allies’ preferred strategies. Woodward’s account of discussion at a National Security Council principals’ meeting is revealing. In response to an argument from Jim Jones, the national security adviser, that allies should be consulted, Dennis Blair, the director of national intelligence, reportedly countered “when did NATO ever lead if we don’t lead?” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her lead on Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, resolved the debate by noting that the “U.S. should have a rollout plan to explain the president’s eventual decision to everyone — first NATO and the allies, of course, and Congress and the public.” Clinton and Holbrook’s thinking is notable: The allies were to be made aware of the decision, not to be participants in it.

Later, following the troop surge and Obama’s 2014 announcement of the end of the combat mission in Afghanistan, NATO seemed a step behind the U.S. decision of whether all forces would depart. Obama had set a 2016 deadline for the departure of all forces except an embassy-based presence, and U.S. observers urged him to reconsider the decision to leave, noting continued challenges in Afghanistan. On Oct. 15, 2015, after what White House officials described as an “extensive, lengthy review,” Obama announced that the United States would maintain its troop presence. Only a month before this announcement, a U.S. general assigned to Resolute Support noted “it still remains the plan” for the United States to draw down to a Kabul-based embassy presence. A week before the U.S. announcement, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg observed, “We haven’t made any final decisions on the duration of the Resolute Support Mission,” and Stoltenberg responded to Obama’s October announcement only by welcoming the U.S. announcement, indicating the that the alliance still needed to formulate a consensus response to the U.S. decision.

Despite friction with the Trump administration and fatigue from the long war, European countries also increased their forces alongside America’s troop increase beginning in 2017, offering what the International Crisis Group characterized as “a symbolically significant expression of support.” Following U.S. direct negotiations with the Taliban in October 2018, U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad engaged with allies as he repeatedly traveled to Brussels leading up to the announcement in February 2020 of a U.S.-Taliban agreement. Notably, however, the agreement did not include NATO as a signatory, even as it obligated the United States to achieve the withdrawal of NATO forces. While NATO had previously expressed general support for the peace process, it issued a statement about the agreement welcoming “significant first steps in pursuit of a peaceful settlement to the conflict.” NATO announced “conditions-based adjustments, including a reduction to our military presence,” but it did not frame any reduction as deriving from the agreement.

Accounts of the decision process within the Biden administration highlight an invigorated interagency process and report that Biden made the decision to withdraw U.S. forces over the objections of the Pentagon and Congress. While allies did not publicly broadcast their views at the time, subsequent accounts have indicated their opposition. Nevertheless, U.S. officials seem to have been more concerned about the eventual victory of the Taliban and impact on Afghan citizens than allied objections.

After the decision was made, according to Secretary General Stoltenberg’s later accounts, there was U.S. consultation, but no effort to develop an alternative for continuing the mission without U.S. troops:

I think it reflects the reality that when the United States decided to end its presence in Afghanistan, and of course the United States has been responsible for the majority of the soldiers and has carried their part of the burden, all the way, there were no willingness from other European allies, Canada or the partner nations, to replace or to fill in after the United States.

Once that decision was made, by Stoltenberg’s account, allies had “many meetings at the ambassador level in February, March and April,” and then “we decided, together, 30 allies, that we would end the mission.” While allies may have made that decision together, their hands were already tied by the U.S. policy process. 

Tradeoffs for Future U.S. policy Toward NATO?

Over the course of the 20-year U.S. mission in Afghanistan allied preferences did not appear to play a significant role in U.S. decision processes, even as U.S. decisions shaped NATO mission’s scope and approach. Afghanistan offers a striking datapoint in the record of U.S. decision-making on NATO issues. Allies did at times have differing viewpoints, including selecting their own approaches in regions under their control and specifying caveats for what their forces could and could not do, but they often followed the U.S. lead. Germany, for example, had a clear preference for pursuing a policy that avoided the use of military force. However, Germany’s prioritization of the need to act in concert with the United States and NATO led Germany to accept “rather against its own will” the need for combat operations. Similarly, the United Kingdom also shifted away from its preference for continuing a peacekeeping role in northern Afghanistan to undertake combat operations in Helmand in 2009.

The practical limits of allied inputs into the overall decision-making for the mission is striking given the scale of allied contributions and sacrifices. Following on the U.S. decision in 2009, U.S. troops peaked at about 100,000 in 2011, with allies contributing a maximum of approximately 40,000 troops at that time. Allies and partners would suffer 1,144 killed in the war, as compared with 2,465 U.S. personnel.

The question remains whether there would have been any difference in outcomes for the mission in Afghanistan or other NATO efforts if U.S. decision-making had given greater consideration to allied preferences. In principle, allies may be more likely to provide greater resources the more closely NATO policy reflects their own preferences. On the other hand, the U.S. government should also weigh value of allied contributions and opinions. Allied military capabilities are substantially less than those of the United States, and allies may be less willing to accept risk in employing their forces. But allies may propose limits on the employment of their forces because U.S. policies do not always reflect their primary objectives, and allies may also be able to offer new and creative approaches to policy problems. Further study of how allies’ preferences may differ from enacted policy, and how that shapes burden-sharing, would be welcome.

A second issue is that of NATO unity, which senior officials identify as a “center of gravity” for the alliance. The Taliban’s seizure of Kabul and crisis at the Kabul airport has led to striking criticism from close U.S. allies. If allies felt Washington had considered their views more in making the decision, they might have been more willing to support U.S. or NATO policy even when events did not go as anticipated. Such unity could be especially important in the event of a major conflict, where an adversary might try to exploit alliance unity to minimize NATO’s response.

The challenge of how to incorporate allied views into U.S. policymaking could require a reassessment of basic assumptions and bureaucratic processes. Bearing in mind that the starting point of a U.S. policymaking process is typically an assessment of U.S. interests, it might seem ill-advised to adjust U.S. goals and decisions because of the concerns of allies and partners. Policymakers have an understandable belief that U.S. preferences should never be placed second, even to those of close allies. However, it is notable that allies seem to routinely take account of U.S. policy in developing their own Afghanistan policy. Furthermore, from a decision process perspective, while allied views may be important for all stakeholders in U.S. policy processes — including the State Department, Department of Defense, and National Security Council — they are unlikely to be at the center of anyone’s concerns given other equities at stake. As a result, a U.S. interagency policy process that develops decisions by aggregating and elevating decision-making within these stakeholder departments and agencies often tends to deprioritize allied views relative to other factors. Another issue is that bringing allies into U.S. decision-making would likely require informing them of pre-decisional options. High profile decision-making on Afghanistan, among other issues, has frequently been disrupted by media leaks. Even with actions to minimize the risk of allies leaking U.S. information, sharing pre-decisional details with allies, even close allies, could pose an unacceptable risk of leaks that limit U.S. freedom of action.

Even if these bureaucratic challenges could be addressed, ideas of U.S. leadership remain to some degree at odds with greater consideration of allies’ preferences. Leadership is a recurring theme in discussions about U.S. foreign policy, of which Afghanistan is a telling example. The day after Obama announced his policy on Afghanistan in 2009, he gave a foreign policy speech at West Point where he explained his “bottom line: America must always lead on the world stage.” What exactly U.S. leadership means may not be well-defined, but at a minimum it appears to involve the United States influencing and setting the agenda for shared decisions.

Biden, and other future American policymakers, should not assume that U.S. leadership will increase allied burden-sharing or unity. Instead, they face a tradeoff between policies that are more narrowly based on U.S. interests and policies that more closely fit allied preferences but increase the costs and sacrifice borne by the United States. Allies may continue to support U.S.-preferred policies, but they could become increasingly dissatisfied. Prioritizing allied preferences would help to preserve alliance unity and maybe even strengthen burden-sharing.



Andrew Radin is a political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. From December 2018 to December 2020, he was detailed from RAND as a country director for Afghanistan in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy. The RAND Center for Analysis of U.S. Grand Strategy supported Radin’s work on this article.

Image: U.S. Marine Corps (Photo by Sgt. Tammy K. Hineline)