The Afghanistan Debacle Is Another Step Toward ‘Fortress Europe’

World Politics Review, 17.08.2021
Judah Grunstein, editor en jefe

A German military aircraft prepares to land at the German camp in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan. (AP Anja Niedringhaus)

The collapse of the Afghan government over the weekend, culminating in the Taliban’s entry into Kabul and declaration of an Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, stunned most observers with its rapidity, even if the outcome itself was not a surprise. Ever since it became clear that U.S. President Joe Biden would withdraw U.S. military forces from the country whether or not a peace deal and power-sharing agreement had been reached, the prospect of a Taliban military victory seemed likely, if not necessarily guaranteed. The speed with which the Afghan security forces unraveled, provincial leaders swapped allegiance and the national government dissolved, however, demonstrated that until the very end, Western assumptions about Afghanistan were shaped more by wishful thinking than by realities on the ground.

Like other stakeholders, the European governments involved in NATO’s Afghanistan mission had counted on a period of at least several months in which to assess the potential damage of a Taliban takeover and make contingency plans. They now find themselves scrambling to evacuate their citizens still in the country. But their boilerplate declarations of solidarity with the Afghan population and commitments to take in relatively small numbers of Afghan interpreters and embassy staff underscore the degree to which Europe has been relegated to the role of a passive bystander, with little agency to shape events in Afghanistan—or elsewhere.

Even at the height of European involvement in the war in Afghanistan, it was always something of an afterthought among both the political class and the general public. That has only become more the case in recent years. Nevertheless, the war has had important impacts on Europe, from the strength of its ties with the U.S. to its ambitions as a global security actor. The way in which the conflict ended and the likely fallout from its outcome will have significant repercussions as well.

At its outset, the Afghanistan war served to restore and strengthen the trans-Atlantic alliance at a time when it was increasingly being called into question. Coming on the heels of Europe’s failure to meaningfully address the Yugoslav wars and amid heightened post-Cold War doubts over NATO’s continued relevance and purpose, the European response to the attacks of 9/11 served to demonstrate the value of alliance solidarity. But it also helped define the nature of Europe’s potential contribution to Washington’s defense, after so many decades of Washington providing for that of Europe. For NATO, the choice was to go “out of area or out of business,” a catchphrase that became not only the watchword of the alliance’s newfound purpose, but also the outlines of a strategic logic for Europe’s role in the new global security landscape of the early 21st century. By covering rearward areas and secondary theaters of operation, like stabilization and peacekeeping missions, European militaries could free up U.S. forces needed for the fight against transnational terrorist groups.

Less than two years after 9/11, the run-up to the invasion of Iraq would once again embitter trans-Atlantic ties, causing divisions between Washington and London on one side, and Paris and Berlin on the other. Here too, Afghanistan served as an offramp to those tensions, providing a cooperative effort with an ethical foundation that both sides could agree on. Though it did take cajoling from Washington, by 2007, European allies began to further boost their deployments to Afghanistan, essentially closing the books on the disputes over Iraq. These deployments often provided a critical mass of boots on the ground for the “hold and build” phases of counterinsurgency’s “clear, hold and build” approach. This reflected a division of labor that satisfied the U.S penchant to control combat operations and the European preference for the stabilization and reconstruction efforts that followed.

The French deployment that year, in particular, highlighted another indirect consequence of the Afghanistan war on trans-Atlantic ties. Ordered by then-President Nicolas Sarkozy—in part to bring Paris back into Washington’s good graces after France’s opposition to the Iraq war—the French troop increase was also the first of a series of steps that ultimately reintegrated France fully into the alliance’s strategic commands. The tacit quid pro quo of the move was the lifting of Washington’s—and at the time London’s—informal veto of further European defense integration under the auspices of the European Union, rather than NATO, which has historically been a key goal of French foreign and security policy.

The EU did subsequently mount some ambitious stabilization missions, in Chad and off the coast of Somalia, for instance. But in practice, Sarkozy’s push for an autonomous and complementary European defense pillar gradually lost steam, as the French grew increasingly comfortable turning to NATO or U.S.-led coalitions when it came time to act, as in Libya and the anti-ISIS campaign in Iraq. Since those efforts, Paris seems to have quickly grown as deferent to, if not quite as dependent on, Washington as the rest of Europe historically has been.

The closer trans-Atlantic ties that resulted both directly and indirectly from the Afghanistan war did pay dividends—both diplomatic, as in the multilateral nuclear deal with Iran, and military, as in Washington’s recommitment to European territorial defense in the aftermath of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. But they also came at the cost of advancing Europe’s ability to act alone militarily when necessary. Despite a recent resurgence in calls for European strategic autonomy—nowhere more vocally than Paris under President Emmanuel Macron—the events of the past four months once again highlighted Europe’s impotence to act independently of Washington. When Biden declared the U.S. would head for the exits, European capitals complained about not being consulted on the decision, but quickly made their own plans for quitting the country, too.

There are already calls for Europe to learn the lesson of the debacle of the past week and once and for all commit to equipping itself with the ability to project force collectively and autonomously. The reaction reflects a sense of betrayal that is real. The four years of Donald Trump’s presidency, after all, were supposed to be an aberration. Biden’s promise that “America is back” now takes on a different connotation, with room for interpretation about which America he is referring to.

But the damage to trans-Atlantic ties is unlikely to endure, for the simple reason that Europeans have no real alternative to the U.S. security umbrella, and they show no real interest in providing one for themselves. The reality is that Europe is likely to learn an altogether different lesson from the Afghanistan war, namely that it is better off not venturing out into the world in search of demons to fight—and nations to build.

This is all the more probable given the radical changes that Europe has undergone in the 20 years since the beginning of the war in Afghanistan. For the first decade thereafter, the EU portrayed itself as a different and novel kind of global power, one that advanced its interests by the force of attraction rather than coercion, based on openness and integration within, and engagement without. That changed markedly in the years following the European debt crisis, but even so, when Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban first sealed his country’s borders to asylum-seekers at the height of the 2015 migration crisis, the initial reaction across most of Europe was outrage.

Fast forward six years and, as Aris Roussinos noted recently, building walls is now Europe’s first instinct when it comes to addressing migration. That is almost certain to be the reaction to the outflow of Afghans fleeing Taliban rule that will soon begin arriving at Europe’s frontiers.

A decade and more ago, former French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine was fond of saying, “Europe must choose between becoming a global power or an enormous Switzerland.” At the time, when the promise of globalization seemed like a worthy prize to defend against the transnational threats emerging from fragile states like Afghanistan at the periphery, the choice seemed obvious: Europe must relearn the language of hard power.

In the aftermath of the collective Western failures in Iraq, Libya, Somalia, the Sahel, the Central African Republic and now Afghanistan, and in a moment when the biggest transnational threat—climate change—has emerged not from the periphery, but from the heart of the developed West, there is less enthusiasm for shaping distant events by force of arms. A more likely scenario, then, is the emergence of a walled-off Fortress Europe, one that opens its gates to business travelers and wealthy tourists, but few others.

If so, Afghanistan will not have been the sole cause, or even perhaps the most important one. But it certainly contributed to Europe’s transformation from a power seeking to attract and even heal the world, to a power seeking to protect itself from the world.

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