Afghanistan crisis is a ‘massive defeat’ for NATO but an opportunity for EU, says Timothy Garton Ash

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The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan is a “massive defeat” for the NATO alliance but strengthens the case for the EU’s “strategic autonomy”, says award-winning historian Timothy Garton Ash.

“It’s a massive defeat and a terrible betrayal of all those people to whom we have said you can have a free and equal life, particularly the women and the girls. It’s a terrible betrayal. It’s a defeat,” Garton Ash told Euronews in an interview at the House of European History in Brussels.

“And the terrorists are coming back. So yes, it has to be said. And two trillion dollars down the drain. It’s very hard to see the pluses from this story.”

For the British professor and long-time commentator of European politics, the West’s frenetic exit from Afghanistan has left the door open for its main adversaries to extend their influence in the region.

“The American, British, German, French embassies are closed,” he said. “The Russian and Chinese embassies are still open. Need I say any more?”

“Either you go in there, you get the really bad guys and you get out [back in] 2003, 2004 – or you say we’re in for the long haul, as we do in other places in our near abroad. I think there’s a strong case for the long haul. If we just kept five, ten thousand troops out, another generation of Afghan women might have had a much better life.”

But despite the geopolitical debacle and the reputation damage for NATO, Garton Ash believes the crisis opens a window of opportunity for the European Union to strengthen its cooperation and deepen its integration.

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“[US] President Joe Biden has made the case for what all Europeans are talking about, namely strategic autonomy and European sovereignty. But the curious thing is that most European leaders reacted by talking about refugees and fear of a new migration crisis rather than saying what they should be saying, which is this makes the case for greater strategic autonomy,” he said.

“There were 2,500 American troops stabilising Afghanistan. France and Britain alone have 10,000 troops and a rapid reaction force. Why didn’t we have a European conversation about what we could have done about it?”

Strategic autonomy back on the table

Strategic autonomy is a loosely defined concept that broadly posits that the EU is too dependent on international partners – primarily the United States – and must become more assertive and self-reliant. The idea, born out in Paris and gradually popularised across the continent, applies to areas such as technology, energy, trade and, more controversially, the military.

Some member states, particularly Eastern and Baltic countries, oppose the prospect of the EU’s military autonomy because they argue the overlap would weaken the NATO alliance, an assessment also shared by Washington. The Atlantic organisation and the EU have 21 member states in common.

However, proponents of strategic autonomy say it’s a necessary step to enable the bloc to respond with greater speed and resolution to the challenges that might arise in its neighbourhood, such as the Taliban offensive and its potential implications for security and migration.

European governments were forced to speed up their evacuation from Kabul because they weren’t able to defend the airport on their own without the help of American troops, who were set to leave the country before August 31. Mindful of this dependence, the Group of 7 pleaded with President Biden to extend the deadline, but their calls were ignored.

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This picture of impotence has left Europeans with a sense of resentment and frustration. The debate around strategic autonomy, which to this day remains theoretical, is once again at the top of the agenda. Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, has called the Afghanistan crisis a “wake-up call” for the bloc and has suggested creating a “rapid entry force” of 5,000 EU soldiers.

“Sometimes there are events that catalyse the history,” Borrell said last week in Slovenia.

“Something happens and pushes the history, it creates a breakthrough. I think that the events in Afghanistan this summer are one of these cases.”

From 2021 to 2027, the EU is poised to funnel almost €8 billion into its new European Defence Fund. The programme doesn’t entail the establishment of an EU army and is simply focused on supporting cross-border research and development in the field of defence.

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