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Since US President Joe Biden announced that US troops would withdraw from Afghanistan after 20 years of engagement, concerns have been raised not about whether the Taliban would gain ground, but about how quickly they would do so. As soon as the retreat began, the worst nightmares began to come true. By the middle of August, the Taliban had taken control of all major cities, including the capital, Kabul, and all border crossings. Until the 16th of August, the civilian airport in Kabul operated for the evacuation of diplomats, foreigners, and Afghans; after this date, the only available airport for evacuation has been the military airport primarly secured by the US troops. As Taliban troops marched into Kabul, the US embassy staff was evacuated in haste while the Afghan government collapsed – leaving many in fear of Taliban retribution. With the political, security, and migratory concerns raised by this event of historical importance in mind, the aim of this blog is to showcase how it will impact EU foreign policy towards Afghanistan and how it encourages Europe to take steps towards achieving strategic autonomy.
By taking a look at the reactions of the EU and its member states, it is evident that the fall of Afghanistan has caught them off guard and unprepared. To make matters worse, shocking scenes emerged from Kabul’s airport showing hundreds of thousands of people trying to find a place on only a few remaining planes and jumping on plane fuselages in the hopes of escaping. With these scenes in mind and the fact that the Taliban are in the process of turning the system from an Islamic Republic to an Islamic Emirate, the immediate concern for the EU is the evacuation of its staff from Afghanistan, including local Afghan staff. This task becomes all the more demanding considering that the Taliban have warned against extending the evacuation process beyond the 31st of August. Since the EU institutions cannot issue humanitarian visas, it is now up to member states to effectively cooperate, in coordination with the European Commission, in granting visas to the staff and their families, and in offering seats on the departing planes. Even under the assumption that the EU completes the evacuation successfully, given the expected undoing of decades of human rights, rule of law and gender equality work, and with the EU already anticipating a migration crisis in the making, how the post-withdrawal period from Afghanistan is handled will dominate the EU’s agenda this summer and beyond.
In fact, the next phase of the EU’s considerations towards Afghanistan will certainly depend on larger shifts in that part of Asia, particularly as the US withdrawal has created a geopolitical vacuum. For now, it is uncertain whether the new regime will be isolated, as it was in the 1996-2001 period, or whether the new Afghan government will be recognised by the international community. While the EU remains highly sceptical of the Taliban’s promises of peace, order and amnesty, Russia and China have seen the latest sequence of events as an opportunity for strengthening their own influence. China, perceived by the EU as a “systemic rival”, has already indicated that it is ready to deepen “friendly and cooperative” relations with the Taliban. With this move, China has clearly shown its readiness to approach the Taliban in a constructive manner, leaving room for potential engagement under the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative. On the other hand, although Russia, as the EU’s traditional rival, is not rushing to recognise the Taliban as the legitimate rulers, it is nevertheless showing open signs of good faith towards the Taliban regime. This was particularly notable when Russia’s UN representative spoke of a bright future for Afghanistan, while the Russian ambassador met with a Taliban representative within 48 hours of the takeover. Although it still remains to be seen how this geopolitical game will unfold, it is certain that it will create a more unpredictable international order in which worldwide democracy-promotion and state building will be non-starters.
With China and Russia simultaneously paving the way for establishing relations with the Taliban, the EU has so far opted for a cautious approach towards any potential engagement. The High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy signed the Joined Statement of the international community on 16 August, a day after the Taliban entered Kabul, calling on those in a position of power in Afghanistan to “secure and facilitate safe and orderly departure of foreign nationals and Afghans who wish to leave the country”. A day later, the Foreign Affairs Council of the EU scrutinised the tools available to the Union for addressing the issue, opting for a conditionality regime. In that regard, any future cooperation with the Taliban, including developmental aid, will be conditioned on a peaceful and inclusive settlement and respect for the fundamental rights of all Afghans, including women, youth and people belonging to minorities. On top of that, the new Afghan regime will be expected to provide assurance that terrorist organisations will be prevented from using its territory. Although the EU will pursue its policy of conditionality towards Afghanistan, it is questionable whether and to what extent this policy will have the ability to substantially change the attitude of Taliban leadership, which insists on strict implementation of the Sharia law.
In sum, the latest events reaffirm the fact that the EU’s foreign policy in Afghanistan, and in the Middle East in general, is still highly dependent on the direction given and actions taken by the United States. As the latter did not engage in effective planning activities with its EU partners, the EU was unable to prevent or prolong the withdrawal from Afghanistan, nor was it able to develop its own evacuation plan in an adequate manner. For this reason, the EU had no other choice but to stand helpless as much of their efforts in Afghanistan went up in smoke. Given that the case of Afghanistan showcases that the EU’s hands are indeed tied when the United States sets the course, this experience confirms the necessity of achieving strategic autonomy and allowing the EU to rely more on its own capacities in the global arena. The focus on securing such autonomy could better equip it to become “able to act when Washington is unwilling”. Although it is unrealistic to expect sudden changes in the EU’s approach to global issues, the withdrawal fiasco could set the stage for discussions not on whether the EU should develop its own military capabilities and capacities, but how fast it can realistically do it. Likewise, concrete action to boost strategic autonomy would improve the EU’s chances of not only thinking strategically, but also of acting strategically.