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The EU Should Learn from the U.S. Strategic Failures in Afghanistan

After 20 years of war, the crisis in Afghanistan promotes the need for the European Union to increase it’s strategic autonomy. Dr. Julien Théron, a lecturer in conflict and international security studies at Sciences Po, shares his perspectives.

Julien Théron

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The debate over the necessity for the European Union to develop further its “strategic autonomy” has been boosted by Donald Trump’s distanciation from the old continent and the emergence of Ursula von der Leyen’s “geopolitical” European commission. The U.S.-EU relations are indeed at the center of this question that will greatly decide the continent’s ability to be a global actor. In light of the debacle in Afghanistan, this concept should not only animate a prosperous political debate, but rapidly transform into an institutional reality – as long as the strategic mistakes are correctly addressed.

In this regard, the West can no longer afford to mishandle conflicts, as it has in Afghanistan. Such mismanagement has catastrophic consequences not only on its international political authority but also on its strategic capacity. It is crucial to avoid the mistakes that have led to the debacle, by building the EU strategic autonomy as an influential pillar of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Misunderstanding the threat

On the eve of 9/11, Al-Qaeda was highly misevaluated: it was a sharp, skilled, and dangerous organization, but which had a limited size due to its clandestine mode of operation. The frog dreamed of being as big as the ox and sought to substitute the post-Cold War Pax Americana with an idealized global Salafi califate. 

Although a small number of Al-Qaeda operatives organized 9/11, the U.S. asked its European partners to partake in one of the most formidable military coalitions that the world has ever known. 9/11 was a trap meant to inflate Jihadism; the U.S. fell into it, and the Europeans joined.

Adventurous interventionism

The decision to invade Afghanistan was politically motivated, based on U.S. internal demands for reassurance. After 9/11, the American people were in shock; they legitimately clamored for a reaction and reassurance from Washington. But the decision to move in Afghanistan proved to be misguided. It fueled Al-Qaeda’s own political narrative and provided a battlefield to a supposed civilizational clash. The U.S. helped the frog to transform into an ox, and due to their particular history, the Europeans should have known that.

The intervention in Afghanistan incentivized Al-Qaeda’s supporters. It offered a great theater of operation for Jihadists that could annul the asymmetry of power, enjoying safe havens in the Hindu Kush and rear bases in Pakistan. On both sides of the Atlantic, strategists mistakenly thought that a huge demonstration of conventional warfare was the proper answer.

The bigger the army, the more certain the victory? Certainly not. Examples of the contrary litter the history of war. 

Mismanaging the conflict

Europeans were keener to assure civil-military missions than heavy combat roles, motivated by military polity or political reserves. They took, however, responsibilities in the International Security Assistance Force and the Resolute Support Mission through NATO. They left though the U.S. endorsed tougher actions in the conflict, while mistreatments and drone killings proved to be catastrophic. However, if Europeans understood the need to address better the conflict, as well as the failures of the Afghan Islamic Republic, they hardly advocated for a more efficient approach to their American partner.

On the field, indeed, the military immediately found itself unable to handle the situation. The U.S. did not move “in a measured manner”, as declared the then-Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld; and stating that the U.S. would fight until “the terrorist networks are destroyed” has just proved false. Barack Obama increased the military capabilities, before initiating a substantial withdrawal. Donald Trump considered the Taliban not only as respectable, but even as reliable to fight terrorism (although they still organized terror attacks), declaring that it was “time for someone else to do that work and it will be the Taliban.”

Last but not least, contrary to Washington’s current official speech, the U.S. did not achieve its objectives in 20 years. Afghanistan never stopped being a sanctuary for international terrorism.

The Taliban’s Islamic Emirate never ceased to exist, and it has finally been authorized to come back. It even took back power without respecting the very clauses of the deal, which included a ceasefire and negotiations with other parties of the country.

After twenty years, despite the support of the U.S. and Europe, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan ended up being nothing more than a failed state. 

Underestimating the withdrawal’s consequences

Despite accurate intelligence, President Biden’s administration mishandled the situation so terribly that it prompted Washington to flee the country, abandoning people and materials with gigantic consequences. From Trump to Biden administrations, the Europeans had to adapt to Washington’s will. Unfortunately, the impacts of this fiasco have been taken utterly too frivolously. The critical magnitude of the debacle in Afghanistan will deeply impact global geopolitics

The conflict in Afghanistan as well as before in Iraq tainted the U.S.’ strategic credibility for enemies but also for allies. Without doubt, this will stay as a key milestone for the struggle of anti-West terrorist movements, guerilla groups and great power adversaries. As things stand, the defeat couldn’t be worse. The Europeans accepted to follow the U.S. in this geopolitical adventure by solidarity, but without voicing out legitimate concerns about the pertinence of the Global War on Terror. Even when they understood that the U.S. misconducted and mishandled the Afghan conflict, they kept a junior partner attitude. Yet, it would have been in the interest of all parties to have had a sturdier European strategic autonomy, able to influence U.S. leading – and failing – strategy in Afghanistan.

Dr Julien Théron is lecturer in conflict and international security studies at Sciences Po.

Julien Théron

I hardly think that being European is just a matter of being in a passive understanding of the word. Being European is trusting that there is richness in diversity and cooperation, that we can get a great benefit to leverage our actions together. It is an active approach to history that includes harsh teachings and imposes to get proactive lessons for today. It is understanding that a common destiny on the continent cannot exist without democratic regimes respectful of human rights and rule of law’s system of checks and balances. The only "accidental" element of being European is thus for me probably the incredible chance of being born on this continent. Inheriting from its peace, stability, and democracy certainly implies in return strong consciousness and responsibility. Photo by Ivan FELDZER