Europe a fearful bystander as Taliban sweeps through Afghanistan

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As the Taliban rapidly recaptures swathes of Afghanistan amid the withdrawal of Western troops, European leaders are watching with a mix of shock, fear and powerlessness.

Having invested in U.S.-led efforts to stabilize Afghanistan over two decades by deploying thousands of troops and sending billions of euros in aid, European officials have been stunned by how quickly the Islamist group has defeated government forces across the country.

“We feared that in 20 weeks, the hands of time would go back 20 years — and instead unfortunately 20 days were enough,” Italian General Claudio Graziano, the chairman of the European Union’s military committee, told POLITICO.

Stoking Europeans’ fears are the prospect of a hardline Islamist regime ruling Afghanistan once again, the possibility of a new wave of migration and grave concerns about the safety of Afghans who have worked for the EU or European governments. Officials are also closely watching the roles that geopolitical rivals Turkey and China are playing in the crisis.

Yet despite Europe having a major stake in the outcome of the conflict in Afghanistan, European officials admit they have very little influence or leverage. And there is no sign of any appetite among European leaders for a new military intervention, following U.S. President Joe Biden’s decision to pull out American forces — a move that prompted the Europeans to follow suit.

The EU is represented by a special envoy, Tomas Niklasson, at talks in Qatar that are meant to produce a lasting political settlement for Afghanistan. On paper, the bloc has some sway there, through its financial aid and its ability to grant international recognition to whoever leads the country.

On Thursday evening, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell tried to play the latter card in a statement calling on the Taliban to “immediately” resume talks and to respect human rights. He warned that “if power is taken by force and an Islamic Emirate re-established, the Taliban would face non-recognition, isolation, lack of international support.” 

But the Taliban has little incentive to engage in those talks or bend to the will of outside powers when it is making such dramatic progress on the ground and now controls most of the country.

“I cannot see much leverage for us,” said one European diplomat. “The Taliban seem just willing to put us in front of a de facto situation.”

While admitting their powerlessness, European officials note that even the much mightier U.S. also appears to have little influence over the advancing Taliban.

European efforts

The lion’s share of money and troops for NATO operations in Afghanistan came from the United States, which lost more than 2,000 soldiers there. But the EU and its member countries also poured substantial resources into the country.

Since 2002, the EU has provided more than €4 billion in development aid to Afghanistan, making the country the largest beneficiary of EU development assistance in the world.

Many European nations also contributed troops to the various U.S.-led military missions in Afghanistan. Germany, for example, deployed a total of more than 150,000 troops to the country over the past 20 years. A total of 59 German soldiers lost their lives in Afghanistan and the Bundeswehr’s operations there cost some €12.5 billion.

Europeans are now watching much of their efforts in Afghanistan go up in smoke. And one of the most pressing issues for European officials is the fate of Afghan staff who worked for them and may face retaliation from the Taliban.

According to diplomats, the EU’s External Action Service, the bloc’s diplomatic body, has identified over 100 local staff members who work for the EU in various forms in Afghanistan, with a total of 456 family dependents. A spokesperson for the service declined to comment on those figures, citing “security reasons.”

Diplomats say that Stefano Sannino, the secretary-general of the External Action Service, sent a letter to EU member countries at the start of August, asking for help to resettle these local staffers as the EU itself can’t grant visas.

A group of countries, including France and the Netherlands, have already replied to say that they are available to help, according to one diplomat. In the letter, the service also floated the idea of offering unpaid leave or a financial severance package to those local employees who want to make their own arrangements in neighboring countries.

Migration fears

One of the biggest fears of European officials is that the conflict and the prospect of a Taliban government could trigger a new wave of mass migration, with large numbers of Afghans seeking asylum and safety in Europe.

Since the beginning of the year, nearly 400,000 Afghans have been internally displaced within the country — some 244,000 since May alone, according to estimates cited by the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR. And Afghans were the No. 1 nationality among irregular arrivals to the EU in 2019 and 2020.

European officials do not expect an imminent migration crisis — but they fear that one will develop in the months ahead. “I’m worried, very worried about that,” said a senior EU diplomat.

Niels Annen, minister of state in Germany’s foreign ministry, said it would be “naive to believe that the onward march of the Taliban and the violence in the war zone will not have any consequences for migration policy.”

“People from Afghanistan will have to flee in greater numbers than in past years,” Annen told the Funke media group.

“We’ll feel the effects of that in Germany too, even if it’s not yet the case in the coming weeks,” he added.

Highlighting these concerns, ministers from six EU countries — Germany, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Greece and Denmark — called this week for the continuation of deportations from Europe for Afghans whose asylum claims have been rejected.

Their letter was condemned by other politicians and rights activists as a crude attempt to signal to Afghans that they should not seek refuge in Europe.

Hannah Neumann, a German Green MEP, said it was ridiculous to believe that freezing deportations would encourage Afghans to flee their country and head for Europe.

“No one can seriously believe that people flee Afghanistan to seek refuge elsewhere only because some EU countries stop deportations,” Neumann said via email. “It is the atrocities of the Taliban that force people to leave.”

At least two of the countries involved, Germany and the Netherlands, swiftly U-turned and put a hold on deportations.

The instability in Afghanistan has also triggered geopolitical concerns in Europe. A recent picture of a meeting between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and senior Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar sparked anxiety among some diplomats that Beijing could gain further influence in a strategic region if the U.S.-backed central government in Kabul falls.

But other officials downplayed these fears, saying that China wants stability and has no interest in allowing Afghanistan to pose a new Islamist terrorist threat.

European officials are also watching Turkey’s role closely. Ankara has offered to deploy troops at Kabul airport after NATO troops withdraw and has held talks with the U.S. for weeks on the matter. Turkey wants certain conditions for a deployment to be met, including a green light from the Taliban that hasn’t yet been forthcoming, officials said.

Officially, the EU has spoken positively about this option. But some diplomats fear that, after strengthening its role in Syria and Libya, Turkey could use its presence in Afghanistan to increase its influence on migration flows to Europe.

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