The rapid collapse of Afghan government forces and the Taliban’s seizure of power have shocked Europe and led to an intense debate about the implications for European policy. While the United States was the prime mover and decided the strategy of Western intervention in Afghanistan, several European countries made a big investment of troops and resources in the effort. Now that effort lies in ruins, and Europeans are left with several unavoidable questions. In the first instance these revolve around the best ways to get their citizens, and those who worked with them, out to safety. But, further ahead, they must consider the lessons of the Afghan experience for their policies on security, stabilisation, relations with the US and other regional powers, and migration, among other areas. This collection brings together ECFR policy experts from across our programmes to share their analysis of what the Taliban’s takeover means for Europe’s core interests and major partners.
Security and defence
The dramatic end of the Afghanistan mission will inevitably raise the question of the future of military interventions. Since 2014, NATO’s focus has shifted from out-of-area missions back to its core task – deterrence and territorial defence. Intervention fatigue has spread among NATO member states. After the ‘forever wars’ in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States is clearly no longer willing to serve as the ‘world’s policeman’. This could already be seen in Syria during the Obama years.
The pressure has therefore increased on Europeans to engage in crisis management in their own neighbourhood. In the future, the European Union will need to enhance its contribution to crisis prevention, stabilisation, and peacebuilding. The Afghanistan mission has forcefully demonstrated to the Europeans how much they depend on American capabilities. Without US military support, the Europeans would not be able to evacuate their own personnel and local Afghan forces from Kabul.
At the same time, the failed Afghanistan mission confronts many Europeans with the question of whether military interventions make any sense at all. Quite a few observers and policymakers, especially in Germany, argue that the lesson of the missions in Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan is that we should no longer engage in this form of activity in the future. Many ask what was achieved by the years of training the Afghan armed forces, deploying European soldiers, and investing huge amounts of money.
It is to be expected that it will now be more difficult for European politicians to convince their populations of the benefits and the legitimacy of military interventions abroad. European member states will have to put their current military missions under review – in France and Germany this might have significant implications for their engagement in the Sahel.
At the same time, Europe cannot shield itself from the trouble spots around it, nor simply see itself as an island of the blessed. If Europeans are no longer committed to stabilising their neighbourhood, instability will come to Europe. It is important not to repeat the mistakes made in Afghanistan. Instead of overloading mandates, future military interventions must have a clearly defined and achievable purpose, with the means necessary to deliver them.
European strategic autonomy
The recent events in Afghanistan will inevitably impact on Europe strategically, above all in its capacity and willingness to act geopolitically. Afghanistan is a test case for European strategic autonomy. Strategic autonomy comprises the following three components: information, decision, and action. Information from stakeholders on the ground about the preparations of the Taliban forces, and the speed with which they might seize Kabul, was faulty, to say the least. The US decision to leave dates back to the spring and prompted no European response at the time. Europeans were left to act – for their own citizens and the Afghans who worked with them, sometimes for years – in haste and in extremely difficult conditions.
This does not have to be a fatal setback to European policy on Afghanistan. But Europe needs to define what its ambitions should be with, and in, the country.
Openness and connections are at the heart of the European project. Europe should not wall itself off from the world and go back to being an inward-looking, fearful political fortress. It would be unable to do this in any case. The European Union should take in all the Afghans who worked for NGOs, member states, and international organisations, as well as those whose rights and lives are at risk with the Taliban.
As for those who stay in Afghanistan, the EU can help them through established aid solutions. The EU knows how to run development programmes and provide humanitarian aid, particularly in the rural areas that are prone to drought. This will also entail reinforcing its presence on the ground to ensure the proper delivery of programmes and to fight corruption – if the Taliban regime is prepared to accept such assistance. The delivery of aid could give the EU some leverage to exert a moderating influence on how Afghanistan is governed.
Again, Europe finds itself caught in the middle of a geopolitical competition whose actors are China, Russia, and Pakistan, among others. It must take the decision to be an influential force in the region: coordination between member states – in regard to information gathering, decision-making and contributing to the development-security nexus – will be essential.
Relations with the United States
Several of America’s European allies have complained vociferously about Joe Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, the competence with which it was carried out, and the lack of meaningful consultation with NATO allies that also had forces in Afghanistan. But from the beginning of NATO’s operation in Afghanistan, European contributors willingly, even eagerly, subordinated themselves to US strategy, regardless of whether it made sense. Complaining now, when everything has fallen apart, seems at best petulant, at worst irresponsible.
It is time to wake up and smell the post-American coffee. The fundamental lesson of the collapse in Afghanistan for Europeans is not about a lack of consultation or even US competence. It is that the third US president in a row has demonstrated that his country will no longer police the world or use its power to support the elusive goal of stability in faraway regions. The tragedy in Afghanistan is a logical outcome of that now well-established position.
The US has become a normal country. It will not be isolationist or unilateral. It can and will work effectively with allies, but only when its vital interests are at stake. It sees those interests in the competition with China. Increasingly, however, in places such as central Asia, the Sahel, and perhaps even Europe’s eastern neighbourhood, it does not.
Europeans have more direct interests at stake in those places. To protect these interests, they will need to develop the will and the capability to exercise their own strategic sovereignty, including the capacity for military intervention with little or no American support.
Those are costly capabilities that will take years to develop and that are barely begun. It is unsurprising that Europeans prefer the old, comfortable American bargain and that they want to believe, as Biden often promises, that “America is back”. But if Europeans take any lesson from the current tragedies in Afghanistan, it is that the old deal is no longer on offer and that relying on it is a dangerous abdication of an inescapable responsibility.
The Middle East and North Africa
As Europeans consider the impact on the Middle East of the United States’ Afghan withdrawal, they will be focused primarily on security implications. There is no love lost between the Taliban and the Islamic State group, but there are still fears that Afghanistan could re-emerge as a haven for extremist groups such as al-Qaeda – with which the Taliban allegedly maintains ties – potentially helping them re-energise wider efforts in Iraq, Syria, and beyond. The Taliban’s spectacular success could also inject new confidence into extremist groups disheartened by years of military setbacks across the Middle East, fuelling new mobilisation (though some groups, such as Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, are also seeking to emulate the Taliban’s strategy of political legitimisation to cement gains on the ground).
But the potential threat remains shrouded in uncertainty. The Taliban may demonstrate some interest in safeguarding international assistance flows into Afghanistan, an outcome which will be impossible if the group provides space for extremist groups. Western governments may use the carrot of international engagement to encourage this sentiment and moderate the group’s behaviour. Meanwhile, the increased localisation of extremist actors across the Middle East – whereby local rather than transnational legitimacy is becoming more relevant – may also dilute possible ties between the Taliban and regional groups.
Above all, the US has made clear that it intends to maintain an “over the horizon” military capability to address security concerns. Washington will undoubtedly remain vigilant in striking perceived terrorist targets in both Afghanistan and the Middle East.
Beyond immediate security implications Europeans will also be asking stark questions about the wider US role in the Middle East, including the impact on ongoing stabilisation efforts. While talk of an American military withdrawal from the Middle East seems exaggerated – indeed, the US may become more dependent on Gulf Arab bases to offset the loss of its Afghanistan presence – the Afghan withdrawal reaffirms that Washington is intent on downsizing its commitments and is done with nation building. The Biden administration appears to also want to narrow US efforts in Iraq and Syria, with a greater focus on core counterterrorism interests, and is unlikely to offer more significant engagement in places such as Libya. This will likely encourage the trend whereby regional actors more assertively and independently pursue their own interests – which risks outcomes that do not always align with Western interests. It also hangs out the prospect that conflicting regional capitals will be more willing to reach accommodations with each other given the lack of a US backstop.
Europeans, for whom a stable Middle East is an absolute imperative given migration and terrorism challenges, will need to ask themselves how to proceed without the same degree of US leadership. This will partly be a question of European commitment and resources. But it will also necessitate a more profound questioning of the Western – European, as much as American – stabilisation model that has so evidently failed in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere over the past 20 years. Europeans will need to ask if and how they can support more realistic objectives rooted in more legitimate and locally owned processes across the Middle East. This will, for one, require a sharper focus on the rampant corruption that is so central to regional instability and which more often than not – as in Afghanistan – is encouraged rather than countered by Western stabilisation efforts.
In the mid-2000s, a British security analyst asked a Russian colleague his view of the US-NATO campaign in Afghanistan. “My head wants you to succeed,” was the answer. “But my heart wants you to fail as miserably as we did.”
Russia’s views about the US withdrawal reman equally ambivalent. Inevitably, there are people who enjoy noting that the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan – long viewed as a symbol of failure – now looks orderly in comparison. Russia’s official propaganda machine keeps gleefully pointing out that those who helped the Americans ended up abandoned, attempting to cling to departing aircraft. “The lesson: Do not help the Stars and Stripes. It’ll use you, then abandon you,” wrote Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of the RT television channel.
But much of such messaging is actually driven by Russia’s domestic context and is aimed at agents of change inside Russia, who – as the Kremlin is trying to persuade itself and the wider population – are supposedly puppets of the West and kept active by its help. But some of this thinking also has a bearing on Moscow’s foreign policy thinking. Several people, including Nikolay Patrushev, the secretary of the Security Council, have said that Afghanistan enjoyed a status similar to Ukraine – that of a major US ally outside NATO. Given how many in Moscow also choose to believe that the current power-holders in Ukraine are Western stooges, rather than leaders the Ukrainian population truly voted for, one can wonder about the dangers of Moscow over-interpreting the parallels and simply waiting for America to ‘leave’ Ukraine.
At the same time, though, Western fears that Moscow, emboldened by the United States’ failure, will now start testing all of Washington’s foreign commitments, seem misplaced too. Another line of thinking in Moscow sees the US as having finally abandoned its unrealistic goals – those of being the world’s policeman, or designer and enforcer of universal democracy. And they view this as something that strengthens, rather than weakens, the US. According to this logic, America will now have resources freed up to pursue the aims it sees as vitally important, and which it will defend tooth and nail – so Russia had better prepare.
Finally, Afghanistan’s fall to the Taliban will also worsen Russia’s own security situation: an influx of Islamist extremists and terrorists to central Asia and, thereafter, to Russia is a longstanding concern for the Kremlin. But this will not happen overnight, and Moscow has had time to make preparations. It has boosted its military presence in central Asia, enhancing border patrol capabilities, and it has invested in ties with the Taliban (though, officially, the organisation is still outlawed in Russia). Moscow is also overall a lot less vulnerable than it was in 1996, when the Taliban last took Kabul. Unlike back then, it does not face a separatist rebellion in its own Muslim republics; and the countries of central Asia – Russia’s buffer from Afghanistan – are functioning states, not mired in civil wars.
Beijing long saw the conflict in Afghanistan as a war that it wanted neither side to win. In the short term the Chinese government will make as much hay as possible out of the United States’ and the West’s “defeat”, selling the story that the withdrawal has ramifications for US commitments to partners and allies writ large. When Washington goes through one of its periodic redefinitions of what its vital interests are, it argues, you too may find yourself abandoned: better to reach terms with the rising power.
China’s worries, however, are twofold.
Firstly, it is worried that it will be left cleaning up the mess. The Chinese leadership did not want to see an outright Taliban victory and they still fear the consequences of an Islamist regime next door. Although China has longstanding dealings with the Taliban, these have only reinforced their sense that, whatever political promises the Taliban makes, Afghanistan will be a permissive environment for a disturbing assortment of militant groups. The cross-border threats are minimal, given that China can easily seal off the Wakhan corridor – Afghanistan’s narrow strip of territory that reaches over to the Chinese border. Still, Beijing remains concerned about the spillover effects in central Asia and, even more so, Pakistan. China has investments and soft targets across the region that are now at greater risk. Nor does Beijing want to get too deeply involved in addressing these problems: although they are stuck having to take on a more active diplomatic role now, Chinese policymakers see Afghanistan as a trap that smart great powers avoid. While they will be happy to dangle the promise of major investments, and provide some short-term assistance to the new government, any serious economic presence in Afghanistan will be contingent on a political and security environment in which Beijing has confidence – which is years away, at best.
The second Chinese worry is that, while the disastrous execution of the withdrawal will have its costs, this finally reflects a ruthless US focus on China as the principal strategic concern. Beijing’s sense is that it experienced a long window of opportunity for the last two decades, in which every time it looked like China was about to command the attention and resources it merited, US policymakers would be pulled away yet again to deal with a more urgent matter, typically in the greater Middle East. The rebalancing of US energies from continental to maritime Asia, from counter-insurgency to great-power competition, had always been at the mercy of the implication of some moral and political responsibility to leave Afghanistan with a semi-acceptable outcome. With that responsibility abdicated, the US now has a freer hand to address the Indo-Pacific and the China challenge, and would be more than happy if Beijing decided that it really wants to ‘fill the void’ in Afghanistan. China’s view, infused with the US and Soviet experiences, remains that doing so could prove a mortal mistake.
Having maintained a dialogue with the Taliban as the United States’ withdrawal neared, Iran’s leaders appear to be seeking some kind of accommodation with the forces now in charge of Afghanistan’s future. This dialogue is intended to address the threat posed by instability across the border. Iran’s security establishment will seek a modus vivendi with the Taliban, mitigating the risks of a new refugee crisis, an increase in drug and weapons smuggling across the border, or an increase in sectarian violence to which Iran may be obliged to respond.
If we consider the Taliban’s control of Afghanistan to have been inevitable in light of the US withdrawal, then the Iranian strategy is understandable – even the Biden administration has recognised the Taliban’s de facto control of the Afghan state in their efforts to maintain a window to extricate foreign nationals and refugees. But the strategy may still prove unpopular among Iranians, who both remember Taliban brutality towards Iranians and have been moved by the scenes of Afghans seeking to flee the country. Prominent Iranian political scientist Sadegh Zibakalam captured the sentiment in a widely shared tweet, stating that Iranian policy in Afghanistan can be summarised as “sacrificing everything for the sake of anti-Western ideology and enmity with the Americans.” He added that Iran’s leaders “do not care about the 40 million people of Afghanistan, nor the situation of women, nor the flood of Afghan refugees to Iran, nor the future of Shiites in the country.” Whether Iran was in a position to help shore up the Afghan government is debatable. But if assistance was withheld in part to ensure the end of the US presence in Afghanistan, the Iranian public may conclude that living next door to the Taliban is too high a price.
Finally, the economic consequences of the Taliban takeover could be significant and will likely have a bearing on both the Iranian economy’s short-term response to US sanctions pressure and on the long-term development of the Iranian economy in a regional context. Iran and Afghanistan are more economically interconnected than is widely appreciated. The development of these ties has been largely ad hoc, driven by the need for Iran to seek regional economic opportunities as sanctions stymied engagement with the global economy. However, specific aspects of this relationship, including the role of Afghanistan in Iranian currency markets and the status of Afghanistan as a primary destination for Iranian non-oil exports, suggest that Iran will pay an economic price for the Taliban’s success.
Until a week ago, Afghanistan presented a golden opportunity for Turkey to regain leverage in relations with NATO partners and mend its broken ties with the United States. First discussed in May and formally announced after the first bilateral meeting between Joe Biden and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan in June, the plan was for the Turkish armed forces to assume control of Kabul airport after the US withdrawal. US officials believed that a Turkish presence would provide sufficient assurances to keep the airport open and prevent a sense of panic within the Afghan population and the diplomatic community in Kabul.
None of this went according to plan.
The Taliban’s advance was far quicker than prior US assessments, and its effortless capture of Kabul led to the dramatic scenes of desperation on the airport tarmac. As US forces doubled down on their presence at Kabul airport to facilitate evacuation flights, it appeared that the 600 Turkish troops who had arrived had little to do.
While Ankara says it is willing to engage with the Taliban and is still interested in playing a role at the airport, this seems highly ambitious. Even though the Taliban craves international recognition and might welcome the Turkish president’s offer to meet with its leaders, a Taliban-led government is unlikely to allow Ankara to run the airport. Turkish troops might eventually have to fly back once the US forces hand the airport over to the Afghan government on 31 August.
With the swift fall of Kabul, what looked like a serendipitous foreign policy gain for Ankara is now a domestic nightmare – on account of a new wave of Afghan refugees. The Turkish public has grown increasingly weary of the government’s refugee policy, and the presence of four million Syrian refugees and the steady stream of Afghans crossing Turkey’s eastern border has further inflamed an ongoing domestic debate. Facing declining support at home, Erdogan is susceptible to such domestic pressures on the refugee issue and needs to look tough on curbing illegal Afghan migration. He has denied the opposition’s claim that he has made an agreement with Washington to accept thousands of Afghan refugees fleeing the Taliban, and has announced that Turkey will build a wall on its eastern border.
All of this is happening while the European Union is in the midst of negotiations for a third financial aid package of roughly €3 billion for Turkey for hosting Syrian refugees. Though the Turkey-EU agreement is strictly to provide assistance for Syrian migrants in Turkey, both German chancellor Angela Merkel and EU high representative Josep Borrell have underlined the importance of talking to Turkey about Afghanistan.
Its desire to play a military role in Afghanistan could increase Turkey’s importance in Europe’s thinking on Afghanistan – but this is unlikely to facilitate another refugee agreement to encourage Turkey to host more Afghans. As it is, Turkey is estimated to already be hosting 300,000 Afghan refugees. Taking in greater numbers would be politically risky for Erdogan.
Although observers have for years asked if the Sahel – especially Mali – would be “France’s Afghanistan”, concerns about the impact of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan are as visible in Sahelian outlets as they are in the international press. Many people are worried by the scenario of a foreign intervention force scaling back or pulling out and leaving the region’s countries even more deeply exposed to instability and the spread of jihadist militancy. This is especially in light of France’s previously announced reduction of forces in the region. The contexts are different, but the reactions of Sahelian populations as well as European officials to the situation in Afghanistan reveal some possibilities for the region’s future.
There has been significant local opposition to French and other international efforts in the region, but Sahelian politicians tend to be more muted in their criticism. They recognise that the region’s militaries and communities, already embattled by jihadist attacks, need international support for their operations. This includes French and increasingly European combat and training initiatives, as well as the large UN peacekeeping mission in Mali. Of course, this need is also mutual, and the region’s leaders know very well how to play on European concerns about instability, terrorism, and increased migration along what EU politicians call Europe’s “southern border” and further into coastal west Africa.
The collapse of Afghanistan’s government after 20 years of foreign military and development assistance throws into sharp contrast the efforts undertaken in the Sahel. Foreign engagement in the Sahel has not been remotely as significant in financial terms or troop levels as the American and NATO presence in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, decades of American counterterrorism training, EU-led capacity building and military training programmes, French and European partner accompaniment of regional troops, and the development projects under the Sahel Alliance have brought neither stability nor development. And, despite a more vocal emphasis on governance and political processes in recent years, progress there is also lagging.
Developments in Afghanistan will likely give French and EU officials pause in considering future drawdowns in the Sahel, even if a full withdrawal remains unlikely. But the clear deficiencies in international stabilisation efforts in Afghanistan and in the Sahel mean that the international community as well as Sahelian leaders face a choice. A genuine focus on political reform, state effectiveness, and reining in the abuses of security forces and militias could help counter the alternative political and security offerings of jihadist groups, especially at a local level. But the question remains about whether Europe and its Sahelian partners can make the hard choices around reform, conditionality, and possible negotiations with militants – or whether they will instead choose to maintain a ‘good enough’ posture that avoids short-term chaos but nonetheless permits a stalemate that reduces regional security and harms Sahelian civilians.
One result of the rapid progress of the Taliban across Afghanistan was to reawaken a reflexive fear within Europe of a possible influx of refugees. The anticipated flow of Afghans into Europe is a stress test in the inevitably tough process of developing a new EU-internal agreement on migration and asylum based on a fairer sharing of responsibility and solidarity.
As early as the beginning of August, a letter to the European Commission signed by immigration ministers from Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Greece, and the Netherlands set the tone: while the EU ambassador in Kabul called on member states to suspend repatriation of Afghans from Europe, because of the increasing violence in Afghanistan, the six countries insisted that the country was a safe place for repatriation. And, even after Kabul was captured by the Taliban, for all the horror and shock of the situation, it is clear that EU leaders preferred to leave the problem to the region. France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, spoke out against “unregulated refugee flows”; Austria’s chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, stressed that there would be no further admission of Afghans to Austria “under his chancellorship”; and Greece’s migration minister Notis Mitarakis stressed that his country would not become “the EU’s gateway for people who want to leave for Europe”. European discussions so far have focused on offering EU support for countries neighbouring Afghanistan.
The topic of asylum and migration has had a particularly acute impact on the otherwise ponderous German parliamentary election campaign. The nationalists have finally found an election issue they can work with – anti-climate policies do not campaign well in a year of floods and forest fires. “Wave of refugees” and “mass immigration” are much more to their taste. And the Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), prefer to pre-empt the pictures of the ‘2015 horror scenario’ themselves, so as not to leave it open to the Alternative for Germany party, and to cater to their right-wing fringe. “2015 must not be repeated,” is the mantra Germany’s CDU chancellor candidate Armin Laschet, issued in response to evacuation scenes at Kabul airport. Striving to distinguish itself from their ‘left competitors’, the Greens, CSU leader Markus Soeder accused the Greens of the much-dreaded “carte blanche” that would “trigger additional migration pressure” in response to their demand for a quota for refugees from Afghanistan.
But how real and how likely are the conjured-up streams of refugees making their way out of Afghanistan into the European Union? In the short term, not very. Apart from the sadly very manageable number of local staff and activists who can be flown out of Afghanistan, the country’s borders are currently virtually sealed. On the one hand, the Taliban controls many parts of the border and prevents many Afghans who are willing to leave the country from doing so. On the other hand, neighbouring countries, such as Turkey and Pakistan, have closed their borders to keep Afghan refugees out.
In the longer term, more Afghans may well aim to come to Europe to join family members living in EU countries or to escape the conditions in refugee camps. It is up to EU states – and some EU states will need to lead the way here – to do better than they did in the case of Syria. They will need to coordinate with Afghanistan’s neighbouring states at an early stage, supporting them financially and logistically to keep their borders open and provide shelter to those fleeing the Taliban regime. In addition, the EU must coordinate to create legal and safe access routes to Europe – for example, by issuing humanitarian visas or temporarily suspending visa requirements. There is sufficient time to act if governments do not spend too much time on populist manoeuvring.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.