Europe after Afghanistan: “We seem fragile, susceptible to blackmail, and lost”

Western countries’ communications on Afghanistan have been a mess since the fall of Kabul, says Omid Nouripour. The country is set to face three types of wars – with the West as mere onlookers.
Image by picture alliance / Kyodo

In the wake of the Taliban’s swift takeover of Afghanistan, the international community – and European allies in particular – find themselves in a state of shock. They are reassessing their assumptions and principles around what was for all of them, especially Germany, so much more than a counterterrorism endeavour.

ECFR council member Omid Nouripour is foreign affairs spokesperson for the Alliance 90/The Greens parliamentary group in the German Bundestag. He has been closely involved in the Afghanistan operation from the start, and has been dealing with the country for the past 15 years as a German parliamentarian. Nouripour is an expert on the region and its political dynamics. Here he gives his personal take on some of the key questions currently being debated in Germany.

Janka Oertel: How do you assess the current situation after the takeover of power in Afghanistan? What is your view of where we stand?

Omid Nouripour: The Taliban are back and are pretending to be moderates. But that’s a mirage. It already seems that the negotiations with Hamid Karzai, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and Abdullah Abdullah will be dragged out until all international forces have left the country. Then the real takeover will begin. There is no reason for the Taliban to agree to any division of power. Additionally, they have too many young and even more radical commanders now, who are much more radical than the old elites from the 1990s and who show no inclination whatsoever to share control.

The developments on the ground suggest that we will see a return to the 1990s: the removal of women from public life, the removal of Shiite symbols, and the discharge of all female public servants in Herat all point to this.

Additionally, the Taliban may significantly enhance their strike power, if they are able to “convince” the pilots, who we have trained over the past few years, to actually operate the many aircraft that they have captured. They may have trouble acquiring spare parts, but, in the end, such logistics are available for purchase. There are states that will potentially assist in this process.

JO: The US withdrawal had been in the making for a long time, but in its execution seemed surprisingly haphazard and inept. What were the biggest tactical mistakes? What made the Taliban so strong that they could take power so quickly? What is the role of the Afghan government, and the Afghan security forces?

ON: What has made the Taliban so strong now is that after the negotiations with US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad [in 2019-2020] they regained the desire to win. Khalilzad asked the Taliban whether they would renounce al-Qaeda – which they happily agreed to in principle, but certainly not in practice. And from that point onward the situation for the Taliban improved. The timetable for the US withdrawal had become much more straightforward and it had become very clear that the morale of the Afghan security forces could be weakened by increasing the number and the intensity of attacks on their ranks. There was time to work the “Pashtun puppets” in the north [referring to Pashtun figures loyal to the Taliban], strategically place sleeper cells, and much more.

Overlooked so far has been the role of the 5,000 detained Taliban fighters whose release was obtained by the Trump administration”

When it came to actual interactions with the Afghan military, the Taliban were often facing opponents who were not provided with the necessary logistical support – sometimes even lacking adequate food supplies. Often Afghan soldiers were even unsure what they were actually fighting for, as their own government was not really providing them with confidence, to say the least.

One thing that has been largely overlooked so far, however, is the important role of the 5,000 detained Taliban fighters whose release was obtained by the Trump administration and against the will of the Afghan military. Khalilzad promised their release to the Taliban during the negotiations. This was not just a huge morale boost for the Taliban, but these are people who are now marching through the streets of Kabul and are celebrated and cheered by the radical fighters as heroes. And they were not just random fighters, but people with significant tactical knowledge and combat experience that really elevated the military capabilities of the Taliban to a whole new level.

Additionally, Afghan President Ghani hesitated far too long and was incapable of making decisions. The deployment of the Afghan Air Force is a good example. In the course of the withdrawal, the Afghan military was given the impression [by Ghani and the US] that they would not be up to the job, and that is in the end what the Americans are saying now as well. They never expected the Afghan security forces to withstand the pressure of the Taliban for long.

JO: You have been working very intensively on Afghanistan for many years and have many direct contacts on the ground. What are the main reactions you are getting? Are there still any expectations when it comes to Germany or Europe?

ON: The people on the ground are in a state of panic, particularly women who experienced the 1990s and know what they will lose. The last 20 years have not led to sustainable changes in this regard. We keep telling ourselves that “so much has been achieved”, but in the end all of this can be lost so quickly. It drives me insane to hear people who have always been opposed to the operation in Afghanistan that they have been proven right, that we should have never been there in the first place, because then the Taliban would not have taken Kabul now. Well, yes, that’s true – but then the Taliban would have continued their rule there over the past 20 years! And the Afghans would have had to endure their terror regime during that same period.

At the same time, we currently see some people doing incredibly brave things. Take, for example, the demonstrations in Kabul by women over the last few days, who are trying to stand up for their rights. These women know that they will pay an enormous price for this the moment that all international troops are gone, but they are still doing it. This amount of courage exceeds my level of imagination.

There is an expectation among some that Germany could provide support for structures for those who are in exile – for example, for media representatives so that they can continue to report if access to the internet is shut down in Afghanistan in the next few weeks.

But, in general, people are just afraid, they are panicking. There are a few glimmers of hope, including the negotiations with the Taliban, but no one really believes that this is going to lead anywhere. The Afghans are trying to play for time. They hope that some of them will be evacuated, but there is sheer horror that they are being abandoned, particularly among those who have supported the international forces over the past decades, which has made them prime targets. They have tried for months to leave the country and it could be too late already.

And, while I sincerely hope that it is not too late yet, the Taliban now control the access to Kabul’s airport, the crucial chokepoint. Now we will have to negotiate for every single person to come through and the Taliban will ask a high price for any concession they make. This could be money that they will then reinvest in their repressive system or directly into weapons, or it could be political demands such as recognition of the caliphate, which is something we cannot do as the consequences would be devastating.

“The German government spent months trying to reduce the number of those eligible for protection; we are now saying everyone should be rescued as quickly as possible”

JO: Your parliamentary group has been calling for the protection of Afghan nationals who have worked for the German Armed Forces and other NATO partners. Do you feel that currently everything necessary or possible is being done to live up to our responsibility?

ON: The writing was on the wall, but the government had no plan B. They only had plans for a best-case scenario, and now we are hit by the worst storm possible, and all our plans are dissolving into thin air. The victims of this lack of planning are the Afghan nationals who have supported our troops, who we have failed to evacuate early enough. And while the German government has spent months engaged in bureaucratic manoeuvring, trying to reduce the number of those eligible for protection in absolute terms, we are now saying everyone should be rescued as quickly as possible. Well, it will likely be too late for this at this stage. And this is unforgivable.

JO: If you look to the future, what will be the medium-term consequences for international politics? Will this experience substantially change German foreign policy?

ON: From my perspective, Afghanistan will experience three wars: the Taliban will have a hard time sustaining total control over the territory – we are already seeing that in Panjshir, where they have not been successful for days now. This is a different terrain and a different kind of resistance that they are facing. Some Afghans are attempting to regroup in Tajikistan to mount their own counter-insurgency.

The second war will be the infighting within the jihadist camp. The Taliban are not as coherent in their structures as it may appear now. In the absence of a common enemy, disputes will flare up. The Taliban have bloody confrontations with ISIS, the [two groups’] goals are different, the personnel is different – even the pay for the fighters is different. This is another battle that will likely play out in Afghanistan.

And, finally, there is a high risk of all sorts of proxy wars taking place – the Iranians, the Pakistanis, the Russians, the Chinese – all of them are carefully monitoring each other’s moves. If the Pakistanis, for example, were to intervene more decisively, this will likely generate a reaction from India. And obviously money is flowing in from the Gulf states now, which will have a further destabilising effect with unknown consequences. In the end, however, this means that the Taliban will not even be able to recreate the deathly form of ‘stability’ that they created in the 1990s.

For international politics this is incredibly significant. It is not just a turning point; this is a disaster with unforeseeable consequences for the West. Since the fall of Kabul, the West’s communications have been terrible. If we say we want to negotiate with the Taliban about refugees, we degrade the Afghan people to mere bargaining chips. If we say we want to negotiate with the neighbouring states about migration flows, what is that supposed to mean? Do we really want to cut a Turkey-style deal with Iran’s President Raisi?

In a world where power projection capabilities are key, this is an enormous setback for the West as a whole, but also for Europe. We seem fragile. We seem susceptible to blackmail. And we seem lost.

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


Member of the German Bundestag, Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs, Bündnis 90/Die Grünen
Director, Asia programme
Senior Policy Fellow

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