U.S. allies slam Afghanistan pullout as a debacle, but also see big opportunities

August 16, 2021, 9:23 PM UTC

With scenes of chaos in Kabul on television, some of Washington’s closest allies have lobbed harsh criticism over President Biden’s hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan—in which they had little say—after years of fighting alongside U.S. soldiers and suffering hundreds of casualties in the 20-year war.

“This is the biggest debacle NATO has suffered since its founding,” said Armin Laschet, the conservative candidate to succeed German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “Whatever happened to ‘America is back’?” Tobias Ellwood, who heads the British Parliament’s Defense Committee, told the Washington Post, while the U.K. Defense Minister Ben Wallace bluntly called the pullout from Afghanistan “a mistake” for which the West would “pay the consequences.”

And yet, away from the scramble to evacuate Western military personnel and diplomats and the frantic efforts of Afghans to flee Taliban rule, analysts say the consequences of the U.S. withdrawal could be mixed—with even possible advantages for its allies.

“There is a bigger strategic reality here: China grew with the U.S. stuck in Afghanistan and Iraq,” said Fabrice Pothier, who directed policy planning for former NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen between 2010 and 2016; he is now chief strategy officer of consultancy firm Rasmussen Global. “The Chinese are thinking, ‘The U.S. is finally getting out of one of its endless wars and will be able to focus much more on the real game,’” he said.

Europe faces the potential for severe problems from the Taliban’s return—including a new migrant crisis. French President Emmanuel Macron said in a televised address on Monday night that EU leaders would join in stopping the expected huge influx of Afghan refugees.

Yet away from their public anguish over the U.S. unilateral withdrawal, some EU leaders might also be hoping for more U.S. attention on Russia’s resurgence—an issue of far more urgency to them than Afghanistan.

“For NATO allies, what they care most about at the moment is that the U.S. is better equipped coming out of this conflict to focus on bolstering the alliance relative to a resurgent, aggressive Russia,” said Jason Davidson, a specialist in U.S. political alliances, and political science professor at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va.

“The Afghanistan situation will be a blip to the U.S. commitment made to NATO,” he added.

Pothier, who is French, says European allies in the Afghan War were heavily dependent on the U.S. military’s intelligence, air support, and logistical capabilities. Despite European politicians’ outrage this week over the chaotic U.S. withdrawal, not a single EU country rushed in to try to fill the vacuum the U.S. was leaving.

“You can criticize the Biden administration’s decision, but no one else could do what the U.S. was doing,” Pothier said. “That is why nobody stepped in when Biden announced the withdrawal.”

There has been a growing realization that the slow progress in Afghanistan did not justify the immense drain on both finances and attention, not to mention the loss of life; about 2,400 Americans died in the Afghan War.

The financial cost of the Afghan War is enormous for the U.S.—and will be felt in government budgets for many years. Many former soldiers are entitled to lifetime medical benefits under the Department of Veterans Affairs, and those costs alone could amount to between $2 trillion and $2.5 trillion by 2050, according to an unpublished study from Harvard Kennedy School public finance expert Linda Bilmes; an embargoed copy was shared with Fortune on Monday. The estimates include all the U.S. post-9/11 military campaigns, including the Iraq War and engagements in Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere.

More worrying, perhaps, is that the U.S. wars have been financed almost entirely through debt—a stark difference from previous generations, when Americans bought war bonds to fund the Second World War effort, or paid higher taxes for the Vietnam and Korean wars.

This time, the U.S. faces interest payments for the post-9/11 wars, estimated to have totaled about $1 trillion so far, and which will keep accruing over the next decade, according to Heidi Peltier, an economist at Boston University, who directs the 20 Years of War research series. The study involves about 50 academics across the U.S., who began in 2010 to examine the costs of the post-9/11 U.S. wars, including the U.S. military involvement in Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere. Peltier estimates about 40% of the U.S. war debt is held by foreign countries, the biggest being China.

“These wars were incredibly expensive, and the American public for the most part did not realize how much they were costing,” Peltier said. “In the end, the withdrawal had more to do with the realization that there was no winning strategy.”

Pothier, the former NATO official, said that is no surprise. After 20 years of military engagement from the U.S. and allies, including Germany, the U.K., France, and Italy, “Kabul was on artificial life support,” he said. “That is why it collapsed so quickly.”

Subscribe to Fortune Daily to get essential business stories straight to your inbox each morning.