Autonomous in Afghanistan: How the Europeans could have stayed after US withdrawal

A European force that remained even as the Americans left could have provided a powerful psychological boost to Afghan forces – and such an operation should have been well within European capabilities

Image by picture alliance / dpa | Michael Kappeler

This was supposed to be a “geopolitical” European Commission – the moment that Europeans asserted their “strategic autonomy”, according to both Ursula von der Leyen, its president, and Josep Borrell, its foreign policy chief. Yet, despite the fact that European countries were strongly opposed to the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan and rightly feared the worst, all of them, including the United Kingdom, went meekly along with the decision. So why did they agree? Why did they fail to act autonomously and not agree to stay in Afghanistan even if the Americans left?

There has always been a tension between the strategies of the Europeans and the Americans in Afghanistan. Individual European countries, as well as the EU mission, were much more focused on what Joe Biden dismissively described as “nation building”. Development aid, support for the civilian police, health and education – especially for girls and women – and empowering civil society were the kind of activities in which they engaged within the framework of both the United Nations and NATO. A report from the EU Institute of Strategic Studies in 2011, along with several other policy recommendations, proposed the demilitarisation of the Afghan mission and a focus on peace building. Many Afghans to whom I talked told me that if only the Europeans had operated together they could have been so much more effective.

The American approach was very different. In the early years, there was a debate between those who favoured what they called “population-centric counter-insurgency” – a sort of militarised nation building approach – and those who favoured a focus on counterterrorism, directly targeting terrorists. The latter won the argument and indeed Biden as vice-president was an ardent advocate of counterterror as a way of reducing the presence of troops on the ground. It was this emphasis that undermined the nation building effort. On the one hand, air strikes, intrusive night raids, and drone attacks produced a counter-reaction. And on the other hand, the funding of local allies in the counterterror effort, including former mujahideen who had been supported by the CIA during the war against the Soviet Union and corrupt officials, explain why it was impossible to tackle the systemic corruption that undermined the legitimacy of the Afghan government.

Even so, the fall of Kabul did not have to happen. It was the consequence of Donald Trump’s policy of negotiating with the Taliban, while excluding the Afghan government and civil society. The agreement committed the United States to withdraw by May this year. Biden was merely following what his predecessor had agreed. The collapse of the Afghan government was effectively a political choice rather than a military defeat. Thousands of Afghan soldiers had died in the fight against the Taliban. This summer’s takeover was the consequence of a political perception that the US had changed sides and was now supporting the Taliban. US logistical support was being withdrawn and, at the same time, the Taliban was increasingly seen as a partner in the attacks on ISIS Khorasan. This is why the Afghan forces in the end presented no resistance.

The Europeans could have enacted a change of strategy away from counterterror and towards greater civilianisation and security for Afghans

Back in February and March when Biden was pondering the decision to withdraw, the Europeans could have decided to stay without the Americans. What was needed at the time was not withdrawal but a change of strategy away from the focus on counterterror and towards greater civilianisation and security for Afghans. Indeed, it was an opportunity at the time to introduce a different, more European approach.

There needed to be multi-level peace talks (regional, national, and local) under the aegis of the United Nations, involving the government and civil society and an end to air and drone strikes.

European troops should have remained in Afghanistan as part of a NATO contingent under the auspices of the UN. Rather than providing logistical support for attacks on Islamist fighters, their task would have been to support the efforts of Afghan security forces to protect Afghans from attack and to monitor and help to guarantee agreements at all levels. They could have contributed to the kind of civilian-led stabilisation that had previously been proposed by the EU Institute of Strategic Studies.

It is sometimes argued that the Europeans lacked the capacity for an autonomous operation. But the NATO mission Operation Resolute Support was only a training mission; the importance of its presence was mainly psychological. It involved some 12,000 troops, half of whom were American. Ever since the EU approved its Global Strategy in 2016, it has been building an autonomous defence capacity. It is unconvincing to argue that this industrial giant is really not capable of providing logistical support for some 10,000 troops or indeed of replacing the logistical support provided to Afghan security forces, especially if counterterror military operations had been ended.

A much more convincing argument has to do with the lack of political will and the lack of agreement between Germany and France. It is rumoured that Germany was bought off with a commitment to deploy additional US troops in Germany to deter Russian adventures in Ukraine. And once Kabul had fallen, the Europeans feared being dragged into a shooting war. It is worth considering two counterfactuals. Firstly, if Trump had stayed in power, would the Europeans have been less inclined to follow the American lead? Did they feel that, with Biden as president, the leading role of the US was back? Secondly, if Brexit had not happened and the UK had still been part of the Common Security and Defence Policy, would Britain and France together have been ready to push for a European alternative?

It is Europe that will bear the brunt of the consequences – above all, a new influx of refugees that will be used by the far-right for electoral advantage. It bodes ill for the future of the EU. The only possibility for a meaningful foreign policy would be a political leadership directly accountable to the citizens of Europe, instead of the fragmented bureaucratic type of leadership that currently characterises the union.

Mary Kaldor is professor emeritus of Global Governance and director of the Conflict Research Programme at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She is also a Council Member of ECFR.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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