Wednesday

20th Oct 2021

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EU's hard Afghan slog may perish due to 'Fortress Europe'

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As the last US forces left Afghanistan on Tuesday (31 August), ending a painful 20-year conflict, this could have been Europe's hour.

Not its finest hour, mind you, but an opportunity to live up to all that lofty EU talk of rights, values and the rule of law.

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  • Despite their reassuring comments, and as demonstrated by too many acts of anti-women violence, there are no guarantees that the Taliban will respect hard-won women's rights

It was not to be.

America's ruthless rush to end the longest and arguably one of its most miserable forever wars has left Nato and the EU brutally cut down to size, reduced to little more than hapless bystanders in yet another unfortunate American military misadventure.

This is not to deny efforts by several European governments and valiant work put in by EU officials as well as European journalists and NGOs to help desperate Afghans fleeing their near-devastated homeland.

This is also not meant as a blanket critique of the time, money and effort the EU has spent in Afghanistan. The country is already the largest beneficiary of EU assistance and more humanitarian aid has been promised.

EU ministers have met, several times and in multiple formations, there has been a rather pointless G7 leaders meeting. A special EU summit looks likely to be called.

The uncomfortable truth is that none of this really matters.

America's gross and callous mismanagement of its retreat from Afghanistan is not just a US affair. It also reflects poorly on the EU and Nato as willing – and often enthusiastic - participants in Washington's "war on terror", its expanding military presence and the much-touted "nation-building" efforts in the country.

Given its economic and military heft - even after Afghanistan, the US military global outreach includes almost 800 bases in more than 70 countries - America will eventually bounce back, even if policymakers learn few lessons.

The blow to the EU's global global reputation, geopolitical ambitions and hopes of having a say in shaping world risks being fatal, however.

A powerless EU is in nobody's interest. European states still play a mitigating role in a world dominated by intense US-China competition, a task set to become even more critical as Washington shifts its attention from Afghanistan and the Middle East to even fiercer rivalry with China and Russia.

Repairing the EU's damaged reputation will not be easy. It will require less sugar-coated Eurocentric analysis and facing up to inconvenient realities.

Here's a little helping hand:

First, stop allowing 'Fortress Europe' to shape EU policies. Pride and prejudice embedded in the EU's migration policy and in references to a "European Way of Life" are also a dark and crippling stain on the EU's foreign, security and development policies.

Politicians who obsess about sudden "migratory pressures" facing the EU while Afghanistan burns, are making a mockery of Europe's endless talk of values and human rights.

The picture of a young Afghan girl skipping her way back to Belgium is heartening. But it is of little solace to thousands of less-fortunate Afghan children.

Second, America does not know best. The US administration is focused on its own interests, not those of its friends and allies, a lesson that is reverberating across the world.

EU governments will also have to stop blindly following the leader and assuming that all US "intelligence" is authentic and sacred.

Graduating from being junior partner to an equal transatlantic partnership is not only about building "strategic autonomy". It is mostly about changing EU mindsets.

Third, stop viewing a very complicated world through a narrow and simplistic Eurocentric lens. EU policymakers may deny that Europe's colonial history matters. But for many nations, the EU's geopolitical attitudes are still coloured by its imperial past.

As such, it's best to avoid offensive orientalist tropes, such as US president Joe Biden's contempt for an "incompetent" Afghan army, or EU high representative Josep Borrell's observation that the Taliban may look no different from 20 years ago but speak better English.

Fourth, steer clear of obvious double standards, especially when dealing with Muslim women. The EU's focus and efforts to help Afghan women and children are important and laudable.

Despite their reassuring comments, and as demonstrated by too many acts of anti-women violence, there are no guarantees that the Taliban will respect hard-won women's rights.

But legitimate concerns about the rights of Afghan women would resonate more forcefully if Europe was similarly angered by the well-documented discrimination, abuse, violence and Islamophobia facing European Muslim women.

Fifth, keep the focus on what Afghans need. This long and sad story has certainly hurt the West but the tragic direct and indirect toll of the war on Afghanistan, its people and their future is incalculable.

Despite trillions of dollars spent, the US leaves Afghanistan in shambles, with rising rates of poverty, starvation, mental illness and life-long impacts on health and well-being. The country's desperate state cannot just be blamed on corruption.

As illustrated by the meeting of EU interior ministers on Tuesday, the focus over the coming days will shift to the "challenge" of dealing with the arrival of "irregular" Afghan refugees.

Better migration management is important and long overdue. But as the drawbridge goes up again, years of Europe's hard work in Afghanistan and elsewhere will perish in the shadow of Fortress Europe.

Author bio

Shada Islam is an independent EU analyst and commentator who runs her own strategy and advisory company New Horizons Project.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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