There is no doubt that the US military and other parts of the American government played a major role in Afghanistan over the last two decades. But missions in Afghanistan were probably also the most substantial European external engagement in the recent history. Europeans were present in this country as part of the US-led NATO forces or representing the European Union and its individual member states.
This was a considerable endeavor. Tens of thousands NATO security personnel from Europe served in Afghanistan for nearly two decades since 2002. Thousands of them were wounded and hundreds died under Hindu Kush. Operations in Afghanistan consumed a substantial part of EU member states’ military budgets. Since 2002, the EU has provided more than €4 billion ($4.7billion) in development aid to Afghanistan in order – as it was put in the EU documents – to contribute to peace, stability and democracy in the country, provide sustainable growth and jobs as well as basic social services. Individual member states’ commitment – e.g. Germany, France or Sweden – was even bigger.
Thanks to international assistance from the US, EU and India among others, substantial social progress was achieved in the country over the last two decades. According to German data, school enrolment of boys and girls rose 12-fold, millions of people were supplied with energy and per capita income increased four-fold. Almost nine in ten Afghans acquired access to the basic health services which resulted in longer life expectancy (by nine years since 2002).
With the Taliban take-over in Afghanistan on August 16th this substantial European investment of political, economic and military resources in Afghan nation-building was put into question. What Western dominated Afghanistan failed in was the creation of a responsive government which could counter both internal and external threats, enjoying the trust of the Afghan people at the same time. Although the EU keeps unofficial contact with the Taliban government, it has very little influence on the situation in the country. Europeans have very limited capacities to protect infrastructural and social investments of the past two decades. The five benchmark approach approved in September by the EU foreign ministers is an important political signal for the Taliban, but it is not likely to change the course of their political actions substantially.
Moreover, the new political setting in Afghanistan creates dire challenges for the Europeans. First, migratory pressure is likely to grow. According to EU estimates, around 570,000 Afghans have applied for asylum in Europe since 2015, compared to 2.2 million Afghans registered in Iran and Pakistan alone (UNHCR data). Another 3.5 million people are internally displaced and may be forced to leave the country. Many others would not see their future in the country governed by radical fundamentalists.
The mass movement of people, if it starts, is not likely to be limited to Afghans themselves. The European public opinion – in this case quite uniquely likeminded – fears the uncontrolled wave of migration which they witnessed in 2014/2015. This migratory wave was triggered by Syrians escaping the war-torn country, but conflict refugees were joined on the way by many other people who wanted to reach the EU borders. Although the numbers may seem not substantial compared to more than 400 million of the combined EU population, many Europeans fear the consequences of uncontrolled and irregular migration which Afghan refugees can trigger. After 2015, the European leaders are also conscious of the political backlash on the continent. The recent migration policy crises deepened intra-European divisions on how to manage migratory flows and gave an opportunity for far-right parties to rise. The new crisis at the European borders is likely to put extra pressure on the EU and their political systems as well.
The authoritarian states bordering the old continent are aware of the European fragility. Many seem to excel in the politics of migratory pressure, once applied by Muamar Kaddafi, the Libyan leader, in 1990s and early 2000s. Today the regime in Minsk not only lets the people on the move to pass through Belarus, but they deliver people on purpose from the Middle East to the EU borders of Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. It is also possible that new leaders in Kabul understand and take advantage of this European fragility. They may play the refugee card themselves and let people leave the country.
The second challenge for the EU is of security. Taliban-governed Afghanistan was once a safe haven for terrorist groups. Observing the evolution of the movement, many hoped it will not promote religious extremism outside the country any more. But this optimism may be misplaced, as some prominent figures in the Taliban government, like Sirajuddin and Anas Haqqanis or Kais Wasiq, cooperated with the Al-Qaida network and organized terrorist attacks themselves. The more moderate fringe, who are focused primarily on the conservative revolution in Afghanistan, seems to be losing ground. Furthermore, the Taliban still seem to be diverse and the opportunities given to the international revolutionary jihadists may vary from province to province, without real control from Kabul. Even if Europeans would like to mitigate security risks by means of diplomacy and economic pressure, it is unclear whether they will find a reliable partner among the new rulers in the Afghan capital.
Moreover, the Taliban movement relied heavily on income from the production of drugs and their trafficking in the last two decades. A major destination for their trade was Europe. As Josep Borell, the coordinator of the EU external policies recently recognized, the political handover in Afghanistan may result in the spike of criminal activities related to drugs.
Migration, jihadist revolutionary zeal, terrorist networks and the drug industry – they all create the third key challenge for Europe: instability in broader Central Asia, which is Europe’s strategic backyard. Political systems in these autocratic republics are challenged more by religious extremist groups than by democratic opposition. Migration from Afghanistan and the export of jihadist ideology may destabilize the entire region in which political systems fail to satisfy the ambitions of young nations, especially as the number of people in the five post-Soviet republics is growing steadily. With the exception of Kazakhstan, the regional leader, other countries seem to be in a rather dire economic situation. Weakened by the combined of pandemics and droughts, they are currently especially vulnerable.
The fourth European challenge in Afghanistan is value-based. Ursula von der Leyen, EU’s Commission President, made bold promises for the Afghans in the spirit of European values in her recent state of the union address: “We stand by the Afghan people. The women and children, prosecutors, journalists and human rights defenders (…) We must support them and we will coordinate all efforts with Member States to bring them to safety”. She also declared an increase in humanitarian assistance for Afghans in the country. These heartening promises bare the risk of not delivering at par with overly high expectations. If they are not fulfilled, it would further undermine European credibility, both in the region and globally. In the current political setting in the country, the EU relies on the goodwill of the Taliban leadership, as well as cooperation with Pakistan, Russia and China.
Here we come to the fifth European challenge made visible by the Taliban takeover. It is connected to the transatlantic relationship with the US, still central for European security. In the European perception, NATO followed its biggest member in order to fight a common security threat. Europeans invested in all possible terms in this mission triggered by the American call on Art. 5 of the Washington Treaty, which states an obligation to collective defense. The recent American decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan was not a surprise for the European NATO allies and other US partners in the EU (only 21 out of 27 EU member states belong to NATO as well). But the precise timing of this operation, the style in which the decision was communicated and its chaotic execution deepened divisions between the Europeans and the American administration.
The Afghan mission was a collective endeavor. Yet the American departure was unilateral. The US decided to leave Afghanistan without taking the interests of their European allies into consideration. It became once more apparent for the Europeans that they rely on American power extensively in global affairs, and that the US will not support European external investment or common ambitions, especially when it clashes with its own national interests of the moment.
For instance, the Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) pact has been finalized by the three powers where none of the American EU allies was even invited. At the same time, the French submarine deal for Australia was cancelled and replaced by an agreement between Canberra and Washington. Central European NATO and EU members were surprised this summer by lifting of US sanctions on North Stream II, a gas pipeline clearly endangering their energy security. The conclusion in surprisingly many EU capitals is clear: even a Democratic US administration does not take European interest into account, and can occasionally play against European allies.
This perception is likely to have a profound impact on European security policy. Voices demanding the creation of strategic autonomy for the EU are becoming louder. In the best-case scenario European strategic autonomy does not necessarily mean an anti-American pivot; it should rather aim at building abilities to act in matters of security independently from its major NATO ally. Even the biggest investment on the international stage has little impact if one cannot defend them. In a more realistic prospect, Brussels and Washington will be drifting apart. The Afghan lesson will be carefully studied on the Old Continent. One should hope it may also lead to forging new enhanced partnerships by Europe on the global stage. It would involve careful diplomacy in Islamabad and Central Asian capitals. Hopefully, the Kabul collapse may bring New Delhi and European capitals – not only Brussels, Berlin and Paris – closer together. As a recent piece by Manoj Joshi demonstrated, New Delhi has considerations about the limits of partnership with the United States similar to those analyzed in the EU. Substantial Indian development cooperation projects in Afghanistan are at stake, sharing probably the fate of European investments. Indians and Europeans will face security threats arising from Afghanistan, in the form of violent religious fundamentalism, terrorism and criminal activities related to drugs. Our partners in Central Asia may need concerted assistance; cooperation in these areas is possible under frameworks created by recent India-EU summits. All partners will do wisely if they try to address multiple challenges arising from the Taliban takeover in a coordinated manner.
Dr. Krzysztof M. Zalewski serves as the President of the Board of the Boym Institute (Warsaw, Poland). He writes about European foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific as well as digital and energy transformations in the region. Krzysztof previously worked at the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights in Vienna (2014-2016), at the Foreign Relations Office of the Chancellery of the President of Poland (2010-2014), at the Polish Parliament (2009-2010) and at the Centre for Eastern Studies in Warsaw (2009).