Three lessons for Europe from the fall of Afghanistan

Europe needs to take a hard look at what worked and what did not work in Afghanistan. Only then can it gradually and realistically build up its own capacities, rather than aim for grandiose schemes that lack public support.

People board a Spanish Airforce A400 plane as part of an evacuation plan at Kabul airport in Afghanistan, Wednesday Aug. 18, 2021.
Image by picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Uncredited
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Europeans were never serious about Afghanistan.

This is probably because, deep down, they knew that the buck did not stop with them. It now seems likely that the Taliban’s takeover of the country will make Europeans even more inward-looking and fearful of a world they do not understand. And the rapidly emerging consensus that state-building is impossible may heighten their anxiety about foreign engagements.

That mindset is an acid that destroys the bonds that should tie Europeans together, leading to the kinds of xenophobic attitudes that were in evidence during the migration crisis created by the Syrian war. As refugees fled the violence in Syria, Europeans were confronted with an unpalatable choice between building ever higher walls, cutting unsavoury deals with so-called buffer countries, or losing control of migration flows. Yet there is only a small distance between accepting that some people cannot be helped and thinking that they are not worth helping. The self-confidence of Europe – which is essential if it is to actively shape its own future – has been damaged by not just its weak operational capacities but, even more so, the ethical crisis of a continent that claims to be universalist but reserves that universalism for its privileged tribes.

However, there are better lessons to draw from the Afghanistan debacle, which could soon repeat itself in other countries on life support – such as Somalia, a state Europeans have engaged with for years. There is a risk that the enormity of the US mission in Afghanistan – costing trillions of dollars – will convince Europeans that it is futile for them to become involved in such missions, given that they have far fewer resources than their American ally. But that would be a very superficial reading of the situation. In recent years, the US presence on the ground was limited to fewer than 5,000 troops. And the human cost for the US armed forces will have been fewer than 5,000 casualties in two decades, compared to more than 58,000 in a decade during the Vietnam war.

Helping societies transform themselves is a generational undertaking. It is impossible to succeed in this if, as the saying goes, we have the watches and the enemy has the time.

Europe needs to take a hard look at what worked and what did not work in Afghanistan. Only then can it gradually and realistically build up its own capacities, rather than aim for grandiose schemes that lack public support.

The reform of the security sector is a good place to start. This domain is at the core of any state-building strategy (if one accepts the Weberian definition of a state as an organisation that has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force). All other aspects of state consolidation – education, healthcare, infrastructure – depend on it. Without providing security, the state can achieve no lasting progress. This is also a domain in which, from Somalia to Mali and the Central African Republic, the European Union and European states play a significant role – through training missions and bilateral cooperation. Recent events in Afghanistan provide three crucial lessons in that regard.

The first lesson is that a very limited foreign presence, combined with close air support for national forces, kept the Taliban at bay for several years and created a stalemate during which a more open society could gain strength. The exoskeleton provided by a limited foreign military presence enables a fragile army to stand its ground. It is a model that Europeans should study and possibly replicate in the Sahel. This may not require a huge military build-up, but it is currently beyond Europe’s capacities.

The second lesson concerns what went wrong in the US effort to build the Afghan army. The militaries of wealthy countries – particularly the United States – do not know how to find the right balance between modernising the armies of poor states and ensuring that modernisation is sustainable. NATO-standard armies depend on a critical support system in which infantry battalions are only the tip of the spear. The essential components of the system include situational awareness through integrated intelligence resources, complex and expensive logistics chains, rapid medevac capacities, and close air support. When local forces have the support of a Western expeditionary force, as was the case in Afghanistan for many years, these capabilities provide them with a considerable advantage. But, if the Western ally pulls the plug, the local force finds itself weak and unprepared, having lost the ability to operate independently. If, in addition, the force’s payroll system is dysfunctional because of corruption, soldiers become utterly demoralised and unwilling to fight.

The third lesson for Europe from the Afghan experience concerns the timeframe of foreign engagements. External support for a fragile army gives states the space and time they need to transform society. That is an important gain: contrary to what many now say about Afghanistan, much has changed for the better in the country. And it may have been misguided to insist on an exit strategy – driven by domestic political considerations rather than objective factors – considering the relatively low cost of a small military footprint and the potentially high cost of the Afghan government’s collapse. Helping societies transform themselves is a generational undertaking. It is impossible to succeed in this if, as the saying goes, we have the watches and the enemy has the time.

Can democracies, European or otherwise, have such strategic patience? Any exit strategy depends on the willingness of the soldiers of a national army to give their life for a country whose leadership they trust. If they do not respect their officers, if they despise their leaders, or if they suspect either of pursuing their own personal or ethnic interests, a collapse is always possible – even after decades of effort. That is why, if Europeans draw the right lessons from Afghanistan and prepare for limited but sustained foreign engagements, they must keep an eye on the political context of these missions. They should never forget that the process of political consolidation is vital to long-term success.

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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Author

Director, Kent Program on Conflict Resolution, Columbia SIPA

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