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President Joe Biden speaks about the evacuation of American citizens, their families, SIV applicants and vulnerable Afghans in the East Room of the White House, Aug. 20, 2021. (AP) President Joe Biden speaks about the evacuation of American citizens, their families, SIV applicants and vulnerable Afghans in the East Room of the White House, Aug. 20, 2021. (AP)

President Joe Biden speaks about the evacuation of American citizens, their families, SIV applicants and vulnerable Afghans in the East Room of the White House, Aug. 20, 2021. (AP)

Miriam Valverde
By Miriam Valverde August 26, 2021

Fact-checking Joe Biden on U.S. credibility as military withdraws from Afghanistan

If Your Time is short

  • Current leaders of the NATO members that contributed most to the International Security Assistance Force mission in Afghanistan — Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy and France — have not publicly criticized the U.S. response or questioned U.S. credibility.

  • But some members of parliament from governing parties have spoken up. Their criticism hasn’t been targeted just at the United States. Some criticism has also been aimed at NATO and the West in general.

  • Foreign policy experts said it’s important to put some of that criticism in the context of possible political or personal agendas.

Under fire over the plight of Afghans and Americans trying to flee Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, President Joe Biden has defended the U.S. military’s withdrawal and pushed back against assertions that U.S. credibility is damaged.

On Aug. 20, a reporter asked Biden: "What is your message to America’s partners around the world who have criticized not the withdrawal, but the conduct of that withdrawal and made them question America’s credibility on the world stage?"

 

Biden replied: "I have seen no question of our credibility from our allies around the world. I've spoken with our NATO allies. … The fact of the matter is I have not seen that. As a matter of fact, the exact opposite I've gotten. The exact opposite thing is we're acting with dispatch. We're committing to what we said we would do."

We can’t fact-check what Biden has seen, but we wondered if his main point is accurate: Is it true that no allies have questioned U.S. credibility in light of the chaos in Afghanistan?

Biden’s claim is partly right, but leaves out important details.

PolitiFact looked through statements on Afghanistan issued by leaders of NATO members, including those that an expert said contributed most to the International Security Assistance Force mission in the country: Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy and France.

The current leaders of those four NATO members have not publicly condemned the U.S. response or questioned its credibility. But some members of foreign governments have challenged the U.S. and NATO on the withdrawal and said that outcomes in Afghanistan weakened the West.

And a day after Biden’s claim, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, an ardent defender of U.S. interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, wrote: "The world is now uncertain of where the West stands because it is so obvious that the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan in this way was driven not by grand strategy but by politics."

The White House press office did not comment on the record for this fact-check.

What’s going on in Afghanistan

On-the-ground reporting has shown chaotic scenes in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, as people try to leave the country, fearing Taliban reprisals against those who worked with allied forces and the U.S.-backed government. The U.S. and other countries have scrambled to arrange evacuation flights on military and commercial planes.

The U.S.’ withdrawal came after nearly two decades of war against the Taliban, which ruled in Kabul from 1996 to 2001 and harbored al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, who planned the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the U.S. 

A coalition of U.S. and allied forces drove out the Taliban in 2001, but the group swiftly regained power in Afghanistan as U.S. troops began withdrawing from the country under the February 2020 agreement between the Taliban and the Trump administration. 

In this Jan. 15, 2018 photo, the commander of NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, U.S. Army Gen. John W. Nicholson, speaks during a change of command ceremony at Task Force Southwest at Shorab military camp of Helmand province, Afghanistan. (AP)

 

When examining the reaction among allies, the most relevant ones to focus on are the biggest NATO contributors to the mission in Afghanistan, said Teresa Eder, a program associate at the Global Europe Program at the Wilson Center.

"Obviously, we have not heard from prime ministers, chancellors, or presidents openly questioning the way this withdrawal was and is being conducted," Eder said.

But some members of parliament from governing parties, and not just opposition leaders, have spoken up.

The criticism hasn’t been targeted just at the United States. Some criticism has also been aimed at NATO and the West in general. The scope also has varied: Some have criticized the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, others have condemned the aftermath, and others have broadly said the outcome in Afghanistan was a failure and proposed re-examining their own approaches to foreign policy. In their criticism, some have referenced their own governments’ accountability.

Eder said there is "some weight" to comments from Norbert Röttgen, chairman of the foreign affairs committee in Germany’s national parliament and a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling party.

"I 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," said Röttgen, according to Politico. "This does fundamental damage to the political and moral credibility of the West."

On Aug. 15, the day the Afghan president fled the country and Taliban fighters entered Kabul, Röttgen tweeted in German: "Today is an immeasurable catastrophe. It is the result of the fatal wrong decision by the U.S. to rush to leave Afghanistan & our inactivity following this decision. A failure of the West with dramatic consequences for (Afghanistan) & our credibility."

On Aug. 18, Röttgen also tweeted that German and European Union foreign policy can no longer consist of "just trailing behind the Americans."

Tom Tugendhat, the Conservative chair of the U.K. Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, tweeted: "Afghanistan 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. In Kabul we’ve failed our friends and ourselves. We need to think again, fast."

In a speech, Tugendhat also called for "reinvigorating our European NATO partners to make sure that we are not dependent on a single ally, on the decision of a single leader."

Tobias Ellwood, who chairs the defense committee in the British Parliament, has questioned the sincerity of Biden’s foreign policy messaging.

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"People are bewildered that after two decades of this big, high-tech power intervening, they are withdrawing and effectively handing the country back to the people we went in to defeat," Ellwood told the Washington Post. "This is the irony. How can you say America is back when we're being defeated by an insurgency armed with no more than (rocket-propelled grenades), land mines and AK-47s?"

Latvia’s defense minister, Artis Pabriks, said in a radio interview that "this kind of troop withdrawal caused chaos," and that "unfortunately, the West, and Europe in particular, are showing they are weaker globally," the Post reported.

Josep Borrell, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, called the developments a "catastrophe for the Afghan people, for the Western values and credibility and for the developing of international relations."

Among current leaders of NATO countries, Czech President Milos Zeman took direct aim at the U.S. "I think that by leaving Afghanistan, the Americans have lost the prestige of a global leader and NATO itself has raised doubts about the legitimacy of its existence," Zeman said, according to a Times of India report that cited Czech media.

Public statements from Merkel, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron and Italy’s prime minister Mario Draghi have emphasized the need to evacuate from Afghanistan their citizens and Afghans who have helped the allied mission, as well as a commitment to the protection of human rights and freedoms in Afghanistan.

After the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan, Merkel said the developments were "bitter, dramatic and appalling, especially for the people in Afghanistan." She also praised international cooperation on evacuations and said that the "allies and of course the Federal Armed Forces along with numerous civilian organisations had accomplished an enormous amount."

International reaction in context

Foreign policy experts told us that it’s important to put some of the criticism in context. There may be a political agenda behind them, or an effort to protect a leader’s legacy, said Sara Bjerg Moller, an assistant professor at the School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University.

In Germany, for example, ruling-party leader Armin Laschet, who called the allied withdrawal a "debacle," is running in a close election to succeed Merkel as chancellor, Moller noted.

In Europe, "politicians are having to answer to their own publics about the role their governments played in Afghanistan over the years," Moller said, "as well as trying to head off criticism regarding ​challenges they are facing getting their own people and ​local partners out by shifting attention and blaming Washington."

Zeman’s comments are primarily geared toward a domestic audience and "have no larger consequences for NATO or the United States," Eder said. Zeman, who is head of state, but not head of government, is known for his Russian-friendly stance, experts said.

NATO allies have known about the U.S. withdrawal, and many got their own forces out in advance, precisely because they knew Biden's timetable, Moller said.

"Telling the media now they are shaken by Biden's withdrawal timetable and would have preferred to maintain the status quo — which wasn't a status quo — is hypocrisy at best and a bald face lie, at worst," Moller said.

Some members of foreign governments who are speaking out may be using the moment to push for concessions from the United States in future policy discussions, said Joshua Shifrinson, an associate professor of international relations at Boston University.

"The fact that we haven’t seen the castigation of U.S. credibility in an overt, dramatic way is a more telling indicator," said Shifrinson.

Where does U.S. credibility stand?

Experts said that the U.S. withdrawal in Afghanistan and ensuing events aren’t being interpreted as an indicator that the U.S. won’t live up to its commitments to allies, such as collective defense obligations under NATO principles.

"I think we can certainly say that we overrated the U.S. planning to withdraw from Afghanistan in an orderly fashion," Eder said, "but I don’t think we can draw any larger conclusions from this and say the United States would not come to the aid of NATO allies in the event of a Russian military attack."

Said Moller: "I am dubious of the claim that the U.S. departure from Afghanistan has shaken our allies' confidence about U.S. security guarantees elsewhere in the world."

European leaders have emphasized that they want to continue coordinating and working with the United States on evacuations, humanitarian issues and the future stability of the region, Eder said.

She said that European leaders also have an interest in waiting to see how things unfold over the next several weeks rather than risking upsetting trans-Atlantic ties on another front.

"Some analysts argue that far from diminishing U.S. credibility, the withdrawal from Afghanistan will free up U.S. resources and capabilities that could enhance deterrence vis-à-vis Russia or China," Eder said.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Aug. 20 said that "NATO remains a strong alliance" and that North America and Europe must continue to stand together.

"The unfolding events in Afghanistan do not change this," Stoltenberg said. "The shifting global balance of power, Russia’s aggressive actions, and the rise of China, make it even more important that we keep a strong trans-Atlantic bond."

Our ruling

Biden said there has been "no question of our credibility from our allies around the world" regarding how the U.S. is withdrawing from Afghanistan.

Some foreign officials have challenged the U.S. and NATO on the withdrawal from Afghanistan and how it was executed. But experts said that the top leaders of NATO members that most contributed to the NATO mission in Afghanistan have not publicly questioned U.S. credibility. We did not find such criticism from those leaders, either.

We rate Biden’s claim Half True.

RELATED: ​​Ask PolitiFact: What are some basic facts on the U.S. war in Afghanistan?

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RELATED: Joe Biden’s full flop on messages about Afghanistan withdrawal

Our Sources

Rev.com, Joe Biden Evacuation of Americans and Allies in Afghanistan Speech Transcript August 20, 2021

Phone interview, Joshua Shifrinson, an associate professor of International Relations at Boston University, Aug. 23, 2021

Email interview, Sara Bjerg Moller, an assistant professor at the School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University, Aug. 23, 25, 2021

Email interview, Teresa Eder, a program associate at the Global Europe Program at the Wilson Center, Aug. 23, 25, 2021

NATO, Press conference by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg following the extraordinary meeting of NATO Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Aug. 20, 2021

UK government, PM call with President Biden, Aug. 17, 2021; ​​The Prime Minister's opening statement on Afghanistan, Aug. 18 2021

The Federal Chancellor website, Developments are bitter, dramatic and appalling, Aug. 16, 2021

Elysee.fr, Speech by President Emmanuel Macron on the situation in Afghanistan, Aug. 16, 2021

Prime Minister of Canada website, G7 Leaders Statement on Afghanistan, Aug. 24, 2021

France 24, Afghan pullout is 'biggest NATO debacle': Merkel party chief, Aug. 16, 2021

NATO, Collective defence - Article 5

Council on Foreign Relations, Global Conflict Tracker — War in Afghanistan, last updated Aug. 24, 2021

CNN, August 19, 2021, Afghanistan-Taliban news

AP, The Latest: US says Kabul evacuees don’t need COVID tests, Aug. 19, 2021

Italian government, Afghanistan. Della Vedova: Italy calls for UN monitoring of human rights, Aug. 24, 2021; Statement by NATO Foreign Ministers on Afghanistan, Aug. 20, 2021; Minister Di Maio participates in the EU Foreign Affairs Council on the situation in Afghanistan, Aug. 18, 2021; Afghanistan: Italian Foreign Ministry in close contact with the US State Department, Aug. 13, 2021

Prime Minister of Australia, Statement on Afghanistan, Aug. 16, 2021

YouTube, Tom Tugendhat on Afghanistan withdrawal, Aug. 18, 2021

Embassy of the Czech Republic in Sofia, Political System of the Czech Republic

The New York Times, How Russians Pay to Play in Other Countries, Dec. 30, 2016

The New Yorker, Does the Great Retreat from Afghanistan Mark the End of the American Era?, Aug. 15, 2021

Washington Post, Afghanistan’s collapse leaves allies questioning U.S. resolve on other fronts, Aug. 15, 2021

Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, Tony Blair: Why We Must Not Abandon the People of Afghanistan – For Their Sakes and Ours, Aug. 21, 2021

The Times of India, Czech leader sees Taliban-led Afghanistan as terror hub, Aug. 17, 2021

Chancellor Angela Merkel statement, Developments are bitter, dramatic and appalling, Aug. 16, 2021

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, Readout of conversation with President Joe Biden, Aug. 20, 2021 

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Fact-checking Joe Biden on U.S. credibility as military withdraws from Afghanistan

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