The Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan is, first and foremost, a tragedy for Afghans. The world’s attention is rightly focused on trying to help those desperately trying to flee the country and worrying about those left behind, notably women and girls.
But it is also a severe blow to the West. Europe and the United States were united as never before in Afghanistan: It was the first time that NATO’s Article 5, committing all members to defend one another, was invoked. And for many years, Europeans provided a strong military commitment and an important economic aid program, amounting to a total of 17.2 billion euros, or $20.3 billion.
But in the end, the timing and nature of the withdrawal were set in Washington. We Europeans found ourselves — not only for the evacuations out of the Kabul airport but also more broadly — depending on American decisions.
That should serve as a wake-up call for anyone who cares about the Atlantic alliance. The United States understandably does not want to do everything alone. To become a more capable ally, Europe must invest more in its security capabilities and develop the ability to think and act in strategic terms. The events in Afghanistan have been harrowing. But they should lead us to deepen, not divide, the alliance with America. And to strengthen our cooperation, Europe must step up.
To do so, we first need to have a shared sense of the threats we face and how best to address them — a common strategic culture. In that vein, the European Union is working on a European Strategic Compass, a document that will precisely define our ambitions for security and defense for the next five to 10 years.
Member states are fully involved in this exercise. Some, for example, have suggested the creation of a European “initial entry force,” consisting of about 5,000 troops, that could undertake rapid and robust action. Helping to secure an airport in challenging circumstances, as in Kabul, could be the type of operation we aim for in the future. By embracing the spirit and potential of collaboration, we hope the document — to be issued in spring 2022 — will serve as a guide to our collective future.
It’s an uncertain future, full of threats in different domains, including cyberspace, the sea and outer space. That’s why it’s vital that Europeans, whether in NATO, the United Nations or the E.U., work together more on defense. Alongside increasing pivotal military capabilities — airlift and refueling, command and control, strategic reconnaissance and space-based assets — we need forces that are more capable, more deployable and more interoperable. Efforts to achieve just that, in the form of several initiatives, are already underway.
But we must go further and faster. The European Defence Fund, established to boost the bloc’s defense capabilities, will receive close to 8 billion euros, or $9.4 billion, over the next six years. That should be used to significantly support collaborative research and the development of much-needed defense technologies.
A more strategically autonomous and militarily capable E.U. would be better able to address the challenges to come in Europe’s neighborhood and beyond. It would also, I am convinced, be a boon for the United States and in the interest of the Atlantic alliance. After all, any partnership needs capable allies and political trust.
The task could not be more urgent. The Taliban’s return to power brings with it the risk of renewed terrorist attacks, a growth in drug trafficking and a large amount of irregular migration. We must be resolute in combating these threats, as well as in responding to a changed regional landscape. China, Russia and Iran will have greater sway in the region, while Pakistan, India, Turkey and Gulf monarchies will all reposition themselves. We cannot let them be the only interlocutors with Afghanistan after the Western withdrawal. Europe, along with the United States, has to reframe its engagement.
Not least with the Taliban themselves. After failing to prevent their capture of the country, we will now have to deal with them, carefully weighing our options and working for a coordinated international approach. That must be subject, of course, to clear conditions on their behavior, notably respect for human rights.
What’s more, we must continue supporting the Afghan people, especially minorities and women and girls. To this end, the European Commission has already decided to quadruple its humanitarian aid this year to 200 million euros, or $236 million, while suspending development aid. And though it will be a challenge, we will have to find ways to get humanitarian aid in and delivered — and safe passage out for those who feel under imminent threat.
The events in Afghanistan are not an invitation to withdraw from further international challenges. On the contrary, they should embolden Europe to deepen its alliances and strengthen its commitment — and ability — to defend its interests.
Some events catalyze history: The Afghanistan debacle is one of them. We Europeans must learn its lessons.
Josep Borrell Fontelles is the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, and vice president of the European Commission.