Lessons to be drawn by Europe from the Afghan experience

Charles Michel

The fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban gives rise to tragic situations, and also produces unbearable images, culminating in last week’s attack that caused the death of at least 170 people.

Many people are wondering what the 20-year international presence was all for, and are questioning the discrepancy between Europe’s involvement in the international effort in Afghanistan and its limited influence over the strategic choices and the course of events leading up to the past few days. As a global economic and democratic power, can Europe be content with a situation where it is unable to ensure unassisted the safety and evacuation of its diplomats, its citizens and those who have helped them and are therefore under threat? And here I pay tribute to the local and EU staff who worked tirelessly up until the very last minute in Afghanistan, and to all our diplomats around the world.

What other major geopolitical event do we need to lead Europe to aim for more decision-making autonomy and capacity for action? The situation in Afghanistan brings us to conduct our analyses and make our choices in accordance with our geostrategic views and interests.

This Afghan crisis imposes on us a full-scale exercise in strategic autonomy.

How did we get here?

In 2001, to assist the United States following al-Qaeda’s attacks on US soil, NATO partners decided to invoke Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty for the first and only time in the organisation’s history. Article 5 provides that an armed attack against one NATO ally is considered an attack against all allies.

The aim of the international military operation launched by NATO in Afghanistan was to eradicate the al-Qaeda terrorist threat sheltered by the Taliban regime. It was gradually coupled with a state-building initiative. A stable and democratic state seemed the best guarantee against a return of the terrorist threat. Choosing full solidarity with their US ally, European countries took on much of the military, civilian, financial or humanitarian effort devoted to Afghanistan and to Afghans. Incidentally, Afghanistan became the first beneficiary of the EU’s development assistance.

The events of the past 20 days reveal a tragic legacy for this dual objective.

The state we patiently tried to construct proved to be a house of cards. And the attack at Kabul airport showed that Afghanistan continues to be a haven of choice for terrorists who, over the past 20 years, have also gained footholds elsewhere, particularly in Africa.

The conclusion of a political agreement with the Taliban, followed by the principle, manner and timing of the military withdrawal, have been US decisions. Those decisions are sovereign, and certainly legitimate in view of U.S. interests. Their choice and the rapid capture of Kabul by the Taliban created this sudden and chaotic situation.

We went to Afghanistan with our US allies. And we are leaving with them. But the new situation has very different implications for the United States and for Europe. This is why Europe must rapidly make choices connected to its strategic interests.

Urgent questions to face

The military engagement has ended. But it doesn’t spell the end of our engagement for the security and the fundamental rights of Afghan women and men. This raises a number of both operational and geopolitical questions. First, the issue of a safe civil airport in Kabul. This will allow vital access for humanitarian aid and those who organise and deliver it: UN agencies, NGOs and diplomats. The Taliban will need foreign assistance to manage the airport. Some countries have already offered their services. Europe wants to continue to provide humanitarian aid to Afghans, and therefore must participate in the effort to reach this objective.

The future relationship with the new regime is another key issue. At the virtual meeting of G7 leaders, we unanimously agreed fundamental conditions: respect for human rights, particularly of women, girls and minorities; the formation of an inclusive government that reflects Afghan diversity; and compliance by Afghanistan with its international obligations, particularly concerning the fight against terrorism and drug trafficking.

If these conditions are highlighted, it is obviously because there are doubts as to the Taliban’s willingness to accept them. The real question is not, alas, whether they will comply with these conditions immediately, fully and sustainably, but rather to what extent it will be possible to encourage them to do so, and with what outcome.

We should be lucid and use all available leverage. The new regime is cut off from the monetary reserves of the Afghan state, and it will wish to preserve external economic relations as much as possible. Humanitarian aid, from Europe in particular, will be crucial for internal stability. Recognition and cooperation with the international community are vital objectives for the new regime in Kabul.

This leverage must be used for the benefit of the Afghan people. This will mean dealing with the new leaders in Kabul, depending on their degree of openness to the principles mentioned above. But we cannot sacrifice the slightest chance of it being possible.

We also need to engage with Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries and other countries in the region. They may not all share our same democratic standards. But they do have a real influence on the issues, which is why we must engage with them.

I commend the unrelenting work of Josep Borrell, our High Representative for Foreign Affairs. It is in close consultation with him that I held a round of telephone conversations with the leaders of Pakistan, Qatar, Turkey and Central Asian neighbours, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, as well as India. I listened a lot. And we exchanged views on concrete actions in order to exert a moderating influence on the new authorities in Kabul. And once again, I heard how loyal and positive a force Europe is seen as abroad.

We also discussed the possible impact of recent events on migratory flows. Neighbouring countries are already sheltering several million Afghans who have fled their country. The issue of hosting additional arrivals will no doubt arise, and with it the question of the resources these countries need to address the situation. This is obviously also a matter for countries and regions further afield, likely to be a next stepping stone for some of these migrants.

This is the case for Europe in particular, another reason to engage in discussions with these countries. They will share with us the responsibility and efforts to provide, inside or outside Afghanistan, decent living conditions, security, and even hosting for Afghans in need of international protection.

An international initiative on Afghanistan

Together with the EU Member States, we need to work out sound and common positions on these issues. But of course, it is not only Europe that is concerned. A stable Afghanistan that respects its international obligations is in the world’s interest. The effort to uphold these fundamental principles and to maintain our support to the Afghan people is matter of responsibility for the entire international community. And we Europeans must take our share of it. We will actively participate in any multilateral initiative, for instance in the framework of the UN or the G20, aimed at channelling and maximising the joint efforts of the international community to support the Afghan people.

The lessons for the European Union

The past two decades and their culmination have taught us three lessons in Europe, beyond the Afghan situation.

First, in the face of complex situations rooted in history, we must seek nuanced, tailor-made and sustainable solutions. We must remain modest and realistic, without ever losing sight of the fundamental values which serve as our compass.

The second lesson is that the European Union can only effectively deal with global challenges by striving for convergence between its members, or even unity on issues that often fall under national sovereignty. We have already made a lot of progress in this direction, by developing a collective understanding within the European Council. This is a prerequisite for identifying common strategic objectives and means of action. This work must be intensified.

Finally, the necessity to reduce our dependencies and strengthen our strategic autonomy is more and more apparent.

The EU and its Member States must carry greater weight in the world – to defend our interests and values and to protect our citizens. This strategic autonomy, whose defence and security component must be developed, is a complement to our alliances.

A stronger Europe will make our alliances, and therefore our allies, stronger too.

The chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan forces us to accelerate honest thinking about European defence, in connection with the discussions between NATO partners.

Following these past 20 years in Afghanistan, we have a responsibility towards Afghans. We also have a responsibility to ourselves, as Europeans.

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