Ian Bond and Luigi Scazzieri / Aug 2021
Western leaders will want to draw a veil over their huge policy failure in Afghanistan quickly. But it would be morally bankrupt and strategically foolish for them to turn their backs on the country.
The first priority needs to be helping those Afghans who have worked with Western governments, aid agencies, NGOs or media organisations to leave the country if they want to. Flights out will be possible as long as Western military forces hold Kabul airport. But Western countries will need to negotiate safe passage for departing Afghans with the Taliban (who are reportedly searching for journalists in some cities, and have been stopping even some Afghans with documents from reaching the airport) and speed up the issuing of visas to priority groups.
Next, Western governments and donor organisations including the EU will have to decide what kind of relations to have with the Taliban. However badly they behave, they will be Afghanistan’s de facto government, and the West will have no choice but to engage with them when providing aid. As winter approaches, Western countries should continue to provide generous humanitarian aid to the Afghan people, but decisions on whether the West should provide Afghanistan with longer-term development assistance should depend on how the Taliban rule. Western governments have limited leverage to shape the group’s behaviour. But they should do what they can, by conditioning longer-term development assistance on the respect for human rights, although any sanctions would have to be targeted not to hurt Afghanistan’s people.
The West will also have to contain the security fallout of the Taliban’s return. Before the Taliban seized power, the US assessed that there was a low probability of Afghanistan being used to launch a terrorist attack in the next year; that judgement may now change. In return for US withdrawal, the Taliban promised that they would not allow Afghanistan to be used to threaten the security of the US or its allies; but Al Qaeda and ISIS are already in Afghanistan, and it is unlikely that the Taliban will put much effort into constraining their activities. With no presence on the ground and limited local intelligence, Western countries will find it harder to identify and strike terrorists. They may have to make difficult choices about co-operating with Afghanistan’s neighbours such as China and Russia, which are also concerned about violent extremism spreading from Afghanistan, but have records of using ‘counterterrorism’ as an excuse for serious human rights violations. The Taliban’s success is also likely to provide a large boost to violent extremist movements in other regions, benefitting groups ranging from Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb to Boko Haram in Nigeria.
Afghanistan under the Taliban is likely to be a dangerous place for all the Afghans who benefitted from the more liberal atmosphere of the past 20 years. Afghanistan’s economy is also likely to suffer. This means that western countries must be ready to deal with greater numbers of Afghan migrants and refugees.
The migration crisis of 2015-16 may not be repeated, as countries near Afghanistan are likely to harden their borders this time. In particular, anti-immigration sentiment in Turkey means that Ankara is likely to try to prevent Afghans from entering its territory. Nonetheless, Europe cannot rely on other countries to absorb migration from Afghanistan for it. EU countries and the UK should be generous in offering resettlement in Europe for those Afghans that are most vulnerable to Taliban oppression and in funding humanitarian agencies in countries that host Afghan refugees.
Many right-wing political parties will seek political advantage if large numbers of Afghans arrive in Europe. But if European leaders undertake logistical preparations now and stress the threats that refugees are fleeing, they can keep migration orderly and mitigate the political impact of an increase in numbers. This will also make their countries more resilient in the face of adversaries like Belarus exploiting desperate migrants to put pressure on the EU.
Finally, the West will have to work hard to mitigate the international consequences of its humiliating defeat. Other partners and allies of the West will be asking themselves whether they would be abandoned in a crisis, as Afghanistan was; and Russia and China will see opportunities to present themselves as more reliable allies than the US or the EU. America’s defeat in Afghanistan will potentially also encourage Moscow and Beijing to increase pressure on Ukraine and Taiwan, in the belief that the US and its allies will not respond militarily. The West needs to signal, for example by stepping up military exercises and defence co-operation, that despite what happened in Afghanistan its resolve to support allies and partners facing external aggression is undiminished.
There will be some harm to transatlantic relations and NATO from the Afghan debacle: many European politicians have made clear they disagree with the US decision to withdraw, with the speed of its execution and with Washington’s lack of consultation with its allies. Even staunchly Atlanticist politicians, such as former British Prime Minister Theresa May and Latvian defence minister Artis Pabriks have been sharply critical. But as long as the US shows that it stands by its commitment to Europe’s defence, the damage can be repaired. In the medium term, however, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is likely to reinforce a sense of European powerlessness and strengthen calls for Europe to increase its ‘strategic autonomy’ – the capacity to act militarily when Washington will not. America’s withdrawal drives home the reality that the US is reducing its footprint in the Middle East and potentially other areas in ways that threaten Europe’s security, and that Europeans need to take on more responsibility.
Having suffered a defeat, at such a high human and financial cost, Western leaders need to ensure, first, that the damage is contained, and that violent extremist groups elsewhere don’t benefit from the Taliban’s success; and, second, that the West itself does not turn inward and allow powers hostile to democracy to fill the vacuum. Leaving Afghanistan will be less of a challenge than getting over the after-shocks of defeat there.