May 14, 2021

The following piece appeared in an article by Die Presse titled, "Afghanistan am Abgrund kann Europa nicht egal sein." This translation was done by Karen M. Gallagher-Teske, research assistant at LISD for the GeoLab project. Title image is courtesy of Freytag & Berndt, Vienna, Austria.  

Wolfgang F. Danspeckgruber is the Founding Director of LISD.

William L. Maley sits on LISD's Advisory Council and is an Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University.

Learn more about LISD's project on Afghanistan and the Region.

Europe Cannot be Indifferent to an Afghanistan on the Brink
Die Presse Vienna, Austria, April 26, 2021

With the withdrawal of U.S. troops by September, an uncertain time begins for the country. It will also be a challenge for the West.

By Wolfgang Danspeckgruber and William Maley

Afghanistan finds itself on a knife’s edge. President Biden’s April 14, 2021 announcement that the United States would withdraw all of its remaining military personnel from Afghanistan by September 11th of this year added significantly to the atmosphere of uncertainty about Afghanistan’s future.

While the announcement has made U.S. intentions clear, it ruins a meaningful “peace process” to resolve the longstanding conflict between moderate Afghan forces committed to a “republican” system of government and the Pakistan-backed Taliban. The Taliban is a totalitarian Islamic movement that was an international pariah before its overthrow by the U.S.-led international military campaign following the 9/11 attacks. But for many seasoned observers, what has been portrayed as a “peace process” for some time now has more closely resembled an exit process for the U.S. from a military theater of operations increasingly seen as unnecessary; the Feb. 29, 2020, agreement between the U.S. under President Trump and the Taliban only reinforced that impression. It offered the Taliban almost everything they wanted, namely a sudden acceptance in international negotiations and at the negotiating table as an equal, a commitment by the Afghan government to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners - which has already happened under U.S. pressure - and a firm timetable for the withdrawal of the U.S. and thus of international troops. So all they have to do is wait.

It is therefore hardly surprising that the Taliban now show no inclination to negotiate sustainable peace solutions with the Afghan government. For months now, the “peace process” has been at a de facto standstill. After President Biden’s announcement of an unconditional troop withdrawal, it is now even more so - see also the postponement of the Istanbul Conference.

The announcement of the withdrawal has now dramatically worsened the situation in Afghanistan, although it is interpreted in different ways: “We have won and America has lost,” say the Taliban, while “panic reigns,” as one person from Kabul recently told us by telephone. Everything has become more unpredictable and dangerous as a result, not only for Afghans and their country, where more than 60 percent of the population of 37 million is under the age of 25, but also for the region - and for Europe. Moderate forces in Afghanistan face a major upheaval: younger professionals in particular, both men and women, and members of non-Pashtun minorities have to reckon with targeted personal attacks - which are in fact already on the rise, contrary to the Taliban’s promises. The Taliban, by the way, continue to receive military support from Pakistan, and it is far from clear whether moderate Afghans will be able to withstand the Taliban’s impending armed pressure, which will likely lead to increased instability and, possibly, a civil war-like situation.

“Panic now reigns”

This increases the likelihood that hundreds of thousands of Afghans, especially women and the younger generation, could plan to flee toward Europe. They will most likely try to travel through Turkey or Central Asia and the Russian Federation. These refugee flows could be instrumentalized by Ankara and other great power interests.

All this while Russian forces are taking a threatening strategic posture toward Belarus and Ukraine. This is an unfortunate moment for the United States’ reputation for strategic reliability (see also: 1994 Budapest Memorandum for the Security of Ukraine and the recent abandonment of the Kurds). The withdrawal of U.S. and international soldiers 20 years after September 11 (many radical Islamic forces celebrate this day in memory of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington) will undoubtedly be celebrated in extremist Islamic propaganda as a victory - and as a defeat of the Western superpower against jihadist forces. It is likely that radical Islamists will now feel inspired by this to take further action elsewhere - see North Africa and the Middle East. Avoiding these dangers is no easy task, but it should be possible. Nothing is set in stone yet. Europe, the U.S., and Russia can - viribus unitis - do it differently by:

  • Convince the Taliban to return to the negotiating table and make it clear that if they take power by force, they will be considered an international terrorist organization.
  • Create immediate effective and credible measures for young Afghans. By means of an EU initiative in cooperation with the UK and OSCE, protect and promote Afghan civil society, which is in the process of blossoming, and economic enterprises that are doing well; and create work programs and vocational training to enable investment and trade.
  • Develop agricultural programs for profitable alternatives to opium cultivation - plus safety guarantees for contributing farmers.
  • Develop the energy sector as well as infrastructure and establish Afghanistan as a regional energy and transit hub. But with corruption control and security considerations.
  • Build security and stability in Afghanistan, i.e., by preventing targeted assassinations, especially against women, employees, opinion leaders, and decision makers.
  • Provide effective training and support for Afghan military and security/special forces, as well as sustain the Afghan Air Force to strengthen its capability and morale and enable effective operations.
  • Support an inclusive Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, but prevent the establishment of an Islamic Emirate.
  • Develop a stabilization concept for neighboring states and the region (from the Gulf to the Hindu Kush) in cooperation with the OSCE.
  • Strengthen the role of the UN Special Representative for Afghanistan with intelligence from European services and allow funding for projects in peaceful and stabilizing parts of the country.

Given the threat of Afghan state collapse, we should be clear: if the West leaves Afghanistan now, many Afghans will try to come to Europe.