Afghanistan exit and Taliban triumph pose profound questions for Europe

World View: Crisis is seen as ‘a disaster with unforeseeable consequences for the West’

The US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the victory of the Taliban there is the greatest debacle Nato has faced, according to German chancellor candidate Armin Laschet. British Conservatives compared it to Suez in 1956 when the US refused to support British and French efforts to topple Nasser. Where is global Britain on the streets of Kabul, asked Theresa May. The bombing and death around the airport have served to underline the chaos that has been unleashed.

The crisis poses profound questions for the western alliance and for transatlantic relations. European leaders conclude they cannot rely on the US to protect their interests. In that sense Biden continues Trump’s policies on leaving Afghanistan, tipping to Asia and confronting China. But what alternatives are there to existing military, security and political alliances in which the US is dominant?

The question is pertinent for an EU and Nato facing potentially similar security and political issues in the Middle East and the vast African Sahel region over coming years. They too are associated with potentially renewed mass migration, coming on top of the expected Afghan one.

The US-led Afghan invasion of 2001 after the 9/11 attacks was the first under Nato’s Article 5 solidarity clause, which was not extended to the Iraq invasion in 2003. Despite Biden’s statement that the Afghan war was principally intended to punish and eliminate al-Qaeda, for German, British and other European Nato powers it involved substantial nation-building and democratisation components. Along with the EU, they took the lead in education, womens’ programmes and development aid, helping create the larger urbanised middle class now feeling abandoned.


Yet they remained relatively silent when the US-led war morphed into a much reduced troop presence under Obama, relying on distant drone warfare to eliminate suspected Taliban village leaders, thereby alienating rural areas and bolstering Taliban resistance. Rampant corruption in the Afghan political class diverted development and other aid. Underpaid Afghan soldiers deprived of US air support surrendered or did deals with the Taliban, following local governors’examples.

The allies' mute acceptance of US policy extended to the weak Trump deal last year continued by Biden. It continued through the June G7 summit in Cornwall, where Boris Johnson was more concerned about US criticism of his Northern Ireland protocol antics than about Afghan developments. Germany had no plan B options to save their programmes, while the British now talk of restoring aid to a level less than the recent cuts in their development programmes.

Valuing that Irish tradition becomes more convincing as the US and Nato roles change so dramatically

The bleak prospects for European policy are set out by Green Party spokesman on foreign affairs in the German Bundestag Omid Nouripour, an expert on Afghanistan, in an interview this week.

“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?”

He concludes: "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."

Military interventionism

The crisis emphasises the importance of regional actors like Iran, Pakistan, India, China and Turkey. The alternative to the liberal or neoconservative military interventionism now so comprehensively discredited is for Europeans to engage politically with them through the United Nations and other fora like the G20 in a more multipolar international setting. The same would apply to African powers and institutions like the African Union.

For the EU and Nato that will involve greater efforts to create political and security autonomy from the US, as advocated by French president Emmanuel Macron, who visited Dublin this week. He heard of Irish efforts through the UN Security Council to boost regional peacemaking, combined with development policies and institution building.

This is a positive Irish contribution to a more coherent EU foreign policy, drawing on a politically and security engaged neutrality rather than the more usual alliance membership of EU states. Valuing that Irish tradition becomes more convincing as the US and Nato roles change so dramatically. As the forthcoming EU president, Macron was reminded of such Irish sensitivities should the current future of Europe negotiations result in proposals for treaty change.