How Afghanistan Is Testing the EU’s Global Leadership

For the EU, shirking its responsibilities regarding Afghan refugees and failing to engage with the Taliban will only reduce the bloc’s status on the global stage.

military italy afghanistan europe
ROME, ITALY - AUGUST 31: The last Italian Army soldiers left in Afghanistan arrive at the Ciampino

After 20 years of war and $2 trillion spent by the US alone, the Taliban is now back in power. It’s not the first time foreign powers have faced defeat in Afghanistan—after a bloody ten-year occupation, the Afghan Mujahideen defeated the Soviets and forced their withdrawal in 1989. The British found out the hard way that Afghanistan’s geography and challenging mountainous terrain makes it virtually impossible to conquer—a lesson they learned not once, not twice, but three times during the Anglo-Afghan wars.

A return to Taliban rule means the collapse of the post-2001 Afghan political order that has been shaped and propped up by Western armies and funding. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans have seen their lives improve these last two decades. They now face the threat of having basic human rights taken away from them. For its part, the US faces the prospect of the country potentially returning to its former role as a base of operations for terrorist organisations targeting itself and its allies. 

Europeans will also be affected. Afghanistan’s instability will lead to increased migration flows, more economic competition in Central and South Asia, and a strategic weakening of the European continent. Since 2002, the EU has provided more than 4 billion in development aid to Afghanistan, making it the largest beneficiary of EU development assistance. This was Brussels’ effort to secure peace, stability and economic prosperity for the Afghan people. But after the West’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, the EU must choose to engage with the new leadership in a new, constructive way and in doing so reaffirm its position on the global stage.


A test to European unity

The deterioration of human rights conditions for Afghans will inevitably lead to huge waves of migration to Europe, kicking off the kinds of social and political unrest last seen in the wake of the 2015 migration crisis. This crisis is still ingrained in Europe’s collective memory, and the political ramifications are still being felt today in countries like Italy, Spain and Hungary.

For those Afghans who weren’t evacuated to the UK or the US by August 31, there is now no option but Europe. China will not accept these refugees, nor will Pakistan, having faced years of Afghan hostility. Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are not an option either. Shia Iran similarly has no incentive to take Sunni Afghans, and Turkey, having absorbed almost four million Syrian refugees and asylum seekers, is now facing social unrest of its own amidst an economic downturn and high unemployment.

The EU and its leaders once again face the inevitability of desperate Afghan refugees (alongside other similarly desperate migrants) landing on European shores. How it decides to handle this mass exodus will demonstrate the driving political ethos of the institution; it will also signal the role the EU wants to play within a fragile global ecosystem.

The EU Council has agreed on a 600 million aid package to support Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries taking in refugees and migrants. Brussels is already drafting it, but it’s a move reminiscent of the 2016 EU-Turkey Deal and the EU should not be prepared to enter such a miserable arrangement. 

The bloc relying on third countries is a desperate measure. It is not in line with the EU’s fundamental values, namely the protection of human rights and human dignity, and it does very little to advance and substantiate the EU’s aspirations for a global leadership role. When we see nations as developmentally disparate as Albania, North Macedonia and Kosovo all commit to taking in Afghan refugees, what excuse does the EU have in outsourcing its humanitarian responsibilities to third countries? 

If the world’s most advanced and prosperous union cannot agree upon an allocation of migrants amongst its member states, then how can we expect anyone to look up to the EU as a global leader and embrace our values? Choosing to throw money at the problem signals a lack of political drive as well as the absence of a long-term vision for the EU’s strategic role in a multipolar world.


Rise to the challenge

With America now out of Afghanistan, the EU once again has a huge opportunity to demonstrate its global ambitions and step up to make them a reality. In a world where the US no longer wishes to extend its military and political reach, the EU is faced with a choice: does it wish to be a regional player—dependent on the whims of others—or a global superpower equal to (or surpassing) the likes of the US and China? If the latter, then Afghanistan presents the EU with its greatest opportunity to do just that.

It’s not just that the EU has the economic gravitas of some of the world’s largest economies—it also has the individual military capabilities of its NATO members and it is a known global convening power. But Europe’s increased involvement in Afghanistan doesn’t just have to do with its greater geopolitical ambitions, but also its own self-interest. Brussels simply cannot afford to let regions bordering the soft underbelly of the EU collapse—either politically or economically. 

The EU is already attempting to advance its strategic, political and economic relations across the world. It has begun with the closer countries in Africa and the Middle East. Central Asia is equally important. Losing Afghanistan to either China or Russia (and allowing them to increase their economic, diplomatic and strategic influence in South and Central Asia) will only add to Europe’s current geopolitical squeeze.


A dose of pragmatism

We have to be honest—at this point, there is no future in Afghanistan without the Taliban. Yes, our values are different, but Europe must be pragmatic. All the money in the world has not succeeded in turning Afghanistan into a nation built on politically inclusive Western values. 

We don’t tell China or other countries whose political values we don’t share, how to run their government, their political and economic system and structures—yet we still trade and cooperate with them. The same can be done with Afghanistan.

The best example here lies in the last American debacle, in Vietnam; almost 50 years on, Vietnam is still run by the same movement and ideology that defeated the US in 1973. Yet economic prosperity and stability ensured that Vietnam wouldn’t become a problem for its neighbours nor the world, and the EU had no issue in entering into a free trade deal with a Socialist Republic led by a one-party system.


Invite Afghan leadership to the big table

Afghanistan doesn’t just need money; it is in dire need of governing infrastructure and economic integration. That’s where the EU can step in to drive, and engage in strategic dialogue, similar to the EU-India, EU-China or EU-Africa Dialogues. 

The EU already has a clear vision for Central Asia, and is engaged in strategic dialogue on political and economic relations with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. It should use its convening power and bring Afghanistan – and Pakistan for that matter, onto the same table—with the aim of locking in the ‘Silk Seven’ (the five ‘stans’ plus Afghanistan and Pakistan)—in a long-term economic, social and political relationship. 

If we fail in this, we sideline Afghanistan and its neighbours. This will mean, in effect, a handover of the region to the Chinese and Russians, who are both willing and able to step in and secure not only the region’s vast wealth of natural resources (namely, industrial minerals), but also long-term political influence.


Let the market lead the way

In the immediate term the EU’s goal should be Afghanistan’s economic integration within its region, and then the integration of that region with the EU economy, eventually leading to more social and political integration across that part of the world. It is in Europe’s interest and the EU itself has to play a leading role in this effort—modelling its own successful architecture. 

The EU itself is a prime example of how trade has been conducive to lasting peace and how economic interdependence among formerly-hostile nations has led to economic, social and political unification. Afghanistan and its surrounding region need their own Treaty of Rome, first and foremost as a sustainable peace project. Political stability will ultimately follow economic prosperity. 

Delivering on that vision will go a long way to proving the EU is the geopolitical power it believes itself to be. Admittedly, it is a long-term project, but the EU has all the tools in the box to deliver it—including trade facilitation through comprehensive investment deals, soft loans, investment guarantees and the gift of access to EU markets. 

The EU’s top policy priority for the region should be to host the EU-Silk Seven strategic dialogue, ensuring that it is Europe that is driving the engagement efforts for a sustainable future in the region. After all, the fact that good neighbours often become good customers is a payoff to look forward to further down the line.

6th September 2021