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Experts react August 18, 2021

Experts react: What the fall of Afghanistan means for Europe

By Atlantic Council experts

As policymakers in Washington grapple with the stark reality of losing Afghanistan, their counterparts across Europe are no less flummoxed over what happens next. What of the streams of refugees that may well pour onto the continent? And will Brussels be as ready to support future US foreign policy initiatives? Our experts from the Europe Center answer these questions—and much more.

Jump to an expert reaction

Gérard Araud: Europe has ‘nothing to expect’ from Washington

Nathalie Loiseau: ‘The age of innocence is over’

Dave Keating: A transatlantic alliance now strained

Daniela Schwarzer: Manage migration now

Bruno Maçães: Coming conflict with Turkey and Iran?

Europe has ‘nothing to expect’ from Washington 

The US debacle in Afghanistan, however spectacular it is, doesn’t fundamentally change the balance of power in the world. The war-torn country holds only minor strategic significance and will become the concern of neighboring powers Iran, Russia, China, Pakistan, and India. The parameters which make the United States the preeminent power in the world have not changed. Furthermore, the credibility of a country is undermined when it is obliged to give up essential interests: Like Vietnam in the 1960s and 70s, Afghanistan was a peripheral US interest. Fighting al-Qaeda didn’t require such a heavy and long-lasting investment. We are seeing the end of textbook mission creep.  

Therefore, beyond a potential migration crisis—which is particularly unwelcome considering the toxic political atmosphere in Europe ahead of elections in Germany and France—I am not convinced that the fall of Kabul will have a significant consequence there. Europeans are moaning that they have not been consulted by Washington, but the United States has never really consulted their allies when making important decisions. The alliance has always been an unequal partnership. Most European countries accept it as the premium of security insurance to which they are deeply attached. The more that security seems shaky, the more Europeans are ready to pay for it. They have been traumatized by Trump; they are not going to question the decisions of Biden, whose election was greeted with relief in all European capitals. The debate will be limited to the think-tank world and calls for policy change in anti-US circles. 

The lesson of the withdrawal from Afghanistan should be that it confirms what the Obama and Trump administrations had been saying in their own ways: The “empire” is tired, and the legions are coming back home. What was striking in Biden’s August 16 speech was his affirmation that the United States would only fight to defend its essential interests—adding what I believe was a subtext implying the interests would be defined in a restrictive way. It means the United States would fulfill their obligations according to the NATO treaty, but would do nothing beyond the letter. In particular, the Europeans have nothing to expect from the United States in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, and the Sahel beyond diplomatic support. Europe is in flames, but the US fireman will not come. 

Unfortunately, no matter what French President Emmanuel Macron has been repeating for some time, I am not sure the Europeans are psychologically ready to face the challenge. I doubt that Kabul will be the wake-up call they need. 

Gérard Araud is a former French ambassador to the United States and a distinguished fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center. 

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‘The age of innocence is over’

If we thought our Western alliance could win hearts and minds with military might and billions of dollars, we were wrong. If we thought a new American leadership would mean more engagement in world affairs, we were wrong. If we think Afghanistan is a distant crisis with no consequences for Europe, we will also be wrong. Terrorism, drug trafficking, and a possible mass exodus of Afghans are all challenges for Europe.

But first, let’s stop blaming the United States for what they do or don’t do. I am certain that US President Joe Biden’s decision is as popular at home as it is controversial abroad. Let’s work together at the European level—and here I would like to include the United Kingdom, despite Brexit—to face our common challenges: rescuing Afghan journalists, artists, and human rights activists who will be forced to flee their homeland. It’s both a moral duty and an investment in a different future for Afghanistan.

This doesn’t mean we should be blackmailed by human traffickers or rogue states taking advantage of migrants’ misery, pressuring us by wielding massive illegal migration as a hybrid threat. We must jointly control our borders and decide who comes in and how. This will also be necessary to increase our fight against drug trafficking and terrorism. We must also send a clear message to the Taliban: no support for terrorism will be tolerated. Any attempt to export jihadism to Europe will have immediate and very significant consequences.

Finally, what is taking place should only encourage Europe to strengthen its strategic autonomy to make sure it can continue working with allies whenever it can—as well as autonomously any time it needs to.

Nathalie Loiseau is a member of the European Parliament, where she serves as chairwoman of the security and defense subcommittee. She previously served as France’s minister of European affairs under President Emmanuel Macron.

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A transatlantic alliance now strained

The most immediate impact for Europe is a humanitarian one, given the likely influx of migrants from Afghanistan and the need for Brussels to aid Afghans who helped EU countries during their missions. But in the longer term, the way this war ended presents a crisis of legitimacy for the transatlantic alliance, and for NATO in particular.

Europeans were caught off guard by the US decision to leave so quickly and without a realistic understanding of the vulnerability of the Afghan state. Several countries, particularly the United Kingdom and Italy, have been left furious after their opposition to the withdrawal was ignored by the Biden administration at June’s NATO summit. After four years of antagonism toward Europe by the Trump administration, this is the last thing the transatlantic alliance needed.

The abrupt withdrawal raises questions about America’s commitment to protecting its allies and whether NATO is truly an alliance—or simply a military protectorate in which only Washington calls the shots. It will accelerate discussion in Brussels about European “strategic autonomy” and the need for independent EU defense capability. Many question why European countries needed to automatically pull out of Afghanistan once the United States decided to do so.

In his speech to the nation on Monday, French President Emmanuel Macron called for an EU strategy to deal with the potential surge of refugees to come from Afghanistan. German Chancellor Angela Merkel told party colleagues that Germany alone must evacuate at least ten thousand people. Emergency EU meetings will take place over the coming days, and the ugly reality is that EU citizens will be prioritized for evacuation over Afghans. The hope is that a clear EU policy will take shape around evacuation and asylum, which may help to alleviate the panic and chaos.

On Monday, Armin Laschet, the chancellor candidate from Merkel’s center-right party who is expected to replace her, called this “the biggest debacle that NATO has suffered since its founding” and said it would require “a no-holds-barred analysis of errors.” Once the dust has settled, an accounting for the money and lives lost over the past two decades will be desperately needed in both Washington and in Brussels. 

Dave Keating is a nonresident senior fellow at the Europe Center and the Brussels correspondent for France 24.

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Manage migration now

Afghanistan’s collapse into the arms of the Taliban after America’s hasty troop withdrawal has direct consequences for Europe. The credibility of US foreign policy, as well as its intelligence services and military, is so damaged that it harms the political and moral credibility of the West as a whole. The situation also underscores how dependent Europeans are on the United States and how little they are heard inside the White House.

The fight for democracy and freedom in Afghanistan is lost for now. Massive human-rights violations are likely to occur, with a particularly vicious assault on women, civil society, and media. The threat of terrorism may increase as Taliban rule may serve as a cover for anti-Western jihadists. Moreover, a refugee crisis is unfolding, and while we are not facing a situation similar to Syria in 2015, there are still serious consequences to consider. An estimated 400,000 Afghans have been forced to flee their homes since the beginning of the year, according to the UN Refugee Agency. Migrants are being instrumentalized in hybrid warfare—for example, Lithuania is accusing Belarus of organizing illicit border crossings—and intra-EU tensions are sure to grow if asylum-seekers head to Europe in larger numbers.

Human rights must be at the center of European foreign policy. Governments should coordinate closely with the United States to help Afghans leave the country—and not only those who worked with the military, but also those who engaged for democracy and human rights. Washington and Brussels bear moral responsibility in this moment of great risk. Visa processes need to be sped up, and the European Union should provide more financial support to those governments willing to step up to welcome Afghans under threat, particularly the Western Balkan countries.

Last month, the bloc launched a forum to mobilize funding for the resettlement of thirty thousand refugees until the end of 2022. This will not be enough: The European Commission should set up an emergency fund to support countries willing to engage in relocation programs. Also important is a UN Human Rights Council resolution calling for a fact-finding mission.

Daniela Schwarzer is the executive director for Europe and Eurasia at Open Society Foundations.

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Coming conflict with Turkey and Iran?

First, borders have been compressed. I wrote about this phenomenon in Dawn of Eurasia. We could almost say Afghanistan is now a neighbor. The refugee pressure is already visible and we could be facing a large refugee wave in just a few short months. Much depends on Turkey and Iran, but even this might be seen as bad news. The worst of the refugee crisis might be avoided, but new tensions and conflict with Turkey and Iran are inevitable. And if these two countries suffer the brunt of the crisis, the resulting instability will reach us anyway. There is also the danger of renewed terrorist attacks against Europe organized from Afghanistan. The picture is thus quite dark.

Second, Afghanistan is one more chapter in the erosion or even disaggregation of the existing order. Europe has been a prime beneficiary of the openness and stability provided by the American-led order. Its disappearance is anything but good news. With former US President Donald Trump, there were doubts about American commitment. What is happening in Kabul under Biden raises doubts about American competence. The response can only be an increase in Europe’s capacities to face an increasingly dangerous world. That response has become urgent after the Afghanistan disaster. Equally important, we need to be more forthcoming with our own ideas about how to project Western influence globally. Many of the ideas coming from Washington have visibly stopped working. Is it Europe’s moment? The cry had often been repeated and may draw embarrassed smiles. But today there really is no alternative.

—Bruno Maçães is the former Portuguese secretary of state for European affairs and the author of Dawn of Eurasia.

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Further reading

Related Experts: Dave Keating

Image: Afghans and Spanish citizens residing in Afghanistan board a military plane as part of their evacuation, at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 18, 2021. Photo via the Ministry of Defense of Spain and Reuters.