EUREN Members Answer
The Afghanistan crisis and its implications for EU-Russia relations

22 September 2021
The withdrawal of the U.S. military and its allies from Afghanistan led to the rapid collapse of the local government, as the Taliban returned to power in Kabul. A last-minute evacuation campaign started by the West left thousands behind, a humanitarian tragedy that was only exacerbated by a deadly IS terror attack at the Kabul airport. A new political reality is emerging in Afghanistan that poses challenges to both Moscow and the EU.

How are the events in Afghanistan perceived and debated in your country? Which implications can be expected, both on the regional and the global level? What can be done about the humanitarian crisis? How should the Taliban leadership be treated? Are there common interests for the EU and Russia to explore regarding Afghanistan, and what are the scope and the limits for cooperation?
ALEXANDER AKSENENOK | Russian International Affairs Council, Moscow:
These days, especially after the Taliban's sudden takeover in Afghanistan, much attention was focused on the U.S. and the recalibration of its policies in the broader Middle East. The main question is: Where will this lead in terms of realpolitik? Will it stabilize this turbulent region, or on the contrary generate new and destructive dynamics? What will be the global implications, in particular for Russia and Europe?

A cool-minded collective search of proper answers to these consequential issues looks much more appropriate than engaging in blame or zero-sum games. For the U.S., given the ongoing domestic political polarization, it would be reasonable to avoid self-flagellation and to settle bipartisan scores. Meanwhile, the other major actors, allies as well as competitors, should refrain from spiteful rhetoric and illusory visions of change in U.S. foreign policy strategy.

The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan has led to tensions between the U.S. and Europe, as European states believed that Washington did not adequately consult with them or listen to their requests. Similar tensions arose in 2003 in the aftermath of the American intervention in Iraq which, as is evident today, had destabilizing consequences on global and regional politics. But the European opposition at that time did not last long. Today, transatlantic relations are much more robust. In any case, Europe has to question its lack of strategic foresight and its dependence on the U.S.

For Russia, it is similarly important to treat the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan correctly, without exploiting it in purely opportunistic aims. Leaving Afghanistan was the right strategic decision, though grossly overdue and executed fecklessly in the final phases. The case of Afghanistan certainly does not mean the end of the U.S. as a global superpower. The U.S. remains an open democratic society which is capable to learn and assimilate the lessons of the past 20 years both in Afghanistan and Iraq. So seeking to turn any failure in any situation into a victory for Russia is a precarious approach.

If Russia does not yield to the temptation of using this turnout for gaining short-lived advantages, the U.S. "recalibration" of the Middle East may open a window of opportunities in bilateral U.S.-Russian relations. Despite conventional thinking, the Biden administration will not be able to ignore the fact that Russian comprehensive involvement in tackling several pressing regional issues is essential in the multipolar Middle East politics. The adaptation to new realities requires all major powers to take a collective, down-to-earth look at their security policies to prevent the second Taliban rule from devolving into a safe haven for international jihadists as it did before the 9/11. If there is no terrorist threat from Afghanistan spilling over its borders, military responses are not necessary anymore. At this juncture, priority should be given to humanitarian aid in an international framework and to economic and technical assistance from regional neighbors mostly interested in maintaining stability.

This approach does not mean a full withdrawal from the Middle East including Afghanistan which, for some time, will remain in the international focus. In other words, the task is to balance the national interests of foreign powers in the region with regional specifics: precisely that balance, which has always been hardest to strike.
OKSANA ANTONENKO | Control Risks Group, Cambridge:
The Afghanistan crisis will have negative consequences for regional and global security, but may create an opportunity for EU-Russia dialogue and, even, limited cooperation.

The chaotic departure of the U.S. forces from Afghanistan following the (unexpectedly) rapid takeover of power by the Taliban, without any substantial consultation with its NATO allies, poses five important questions for European policymakers (both at the EU and member-state level):

(1) How will the crisis impact the transatlantic security system? Will it accelerate EU's drive for strategic autonomy amid concerns about the credibility of America's security commitments?

(2) Will the perceived defeat of the U.S. by the Taliban empower radical terrorist groups – including ISIL and its affiliates – to relaunch their terrorist campaign in the West? How can the Taliban ensure that Afghanistan's territory is not used to prepare and launch these attacks? How can the West incentivize the Taliban to take 'zero tolerance' stance on ISIS, without being seen as compromising on EU's human rights and inclusion principles?

(3) How can the EU manage significant refugee inflows at a time when many European democracies are already facing domestic political tensions due COVID crisis? How to reconcile moral and political imperatives in allowing educated and internationalized Afghan citizens to escape the new constrains on their security, professional and personal lives?

(4) What does the Afghanistan case tell us about the U.S./NATO willingness (and readiness) to intervene in future humanitarian and security crises in the Middle East, North/West Africa, and the rest of the world? Which actors will seek to fill the emerging security vacuum?

(5) How (if at all) should the West cooperate with Russia and China in addressing threats emanating from the Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, while also implementing Biden's foreign policy doctrine, which focuses on China/Russia containment over liberal interventionism (or regional crisis management)? If engagement fails, will Central Asia become an area of heightened geopolitical tensions?

While it is still early to assess these threats and challenges, the Afghanistan crisis should not be viewed in isolation from the new international (security) order – fully embraced by the Biden Administration – in which the U.S. will be playing a significantly less activist and dominant role in future crises. The scaling down of the U.S. commitments in the region opens a window of opportunity for dialogue with Russia (and China) on ways to contain any cross-border spill overs from the crisis: terrorism, refugees, drugs and radical Islamist ideology. Central Asia should be the focal point for these discussions, although Russia is likely to resist a new wave of Western engagement in the region (similar to the one post 9/11), including NATO's forward military presence or large refugee camps. NATO-CSTO or NATO-SCO dialogue on regional terrorist threats could be one channel of such discussions, which avoids discussing Central Asian matters without involvement of regional states.
LARISA DERIGLAZOVA | Jean Monnet Centre for European studies, Tomsk State University:
Afghanistan once again proves to be a country that is difficult to modernize with values of liberalism and democracy, with the goal of stopping it being a source of turbulence and threats to the developed world. Soviet modernization during the S.U.'s presence in Afghanistan, 1979-1989, and the withdrawal of Soviet troops were followed by the establishment of Taliban control. Earlier in history in the 19th and early 20th century, the "Great Game" between Great Britain and the Russian Empire was another example of European powers attempts to turn the country into a suitable partner.

Looking at enormous scholarship devoted to Afghanistan I share the assessment of Kazakh scholar Saltan Akimbekov who writes that "there is no other country in the region has had so much written about or been studied so thoroughly, as though scrutinized through a magnifying glass". Still, the current development once again demonstrated that there is little understanding of the country and a lack of vision for its possible future.

Some Russian experts with satisfaction referred to the U.S.' and their allies' withdrawal as a failure, but so far no external forces have succeeded in Afghanistan. The grim reality urges Western countries and Russia to look at the situation in a broader perspective and to cooperate rather than contend. The EU, U.S. and Russia should once again critically access their foreign, military and security policies of the past decades in the region and the lessons that they have learned. It is a lesson about the inability of economically and military superior countries to win against weaker local opponents in asymmetric conflicts and to defeat terrorist groups by military means with lasting success. It is a lesson about the consequences of withdrawal from a region where foreign massive military presence lasted for decades and heavily impacted all aspects of life for millions of locals.

This critical evaluation needs to address the fundamental difficulty of modernizing and reforming a country through the elimination of anti-external forces and nurturing pro-external forces among local elites. Ultimately, this is about responsibility of developed countries for the choice of actions they have made and for the results of these choices. It is about thin line between "must" and "need".
MARK ENTIN | Moscow State Institute of International Relations:
September 11, 2001, found me as the Acting Permanent Representative of Russia to the Council of Europe. At the next meeting of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, I took the floor to express our country's solidarity with the people of the U.S. and to declare our readiness to fight shoulder to shoulder with a common enemy, as we did during the Second World War. It was a clear and unconditional statement of the Russian position. Two weeks later, after intensive consultations, which are usual for the EU, representatives of its member states joined it. Immediately, Moscow, including within the framework of this authoritative international organization, tried to translate calls for solidarity and the creation of a unified anti-terrorist front into practice. We proposed the development and adoption of a multilateral European convention on international cooperation in combating terrorism, open to other countries, advocated making the legal support of such cooperation one of the leading areas of the Council's activities, and put forward a number of other practical initiatives.

The recent events in Afghanistan show how right we were, how true is the position that insists on honest, broad, inclusive international cooperation in the fight against international terrorism and any, I emphasize, any forms of its manifestation. After all, if a united front had really been created, if the leading powers had abandoned unilateral inconsistent, contradictory and sometimes even criminal actions and joined their efforts, events everywhere in the world would have followed a different track. There would not have been 20 lost years in the political, social and economic development of Afghanistan; there would not have been hundreds of thousands of deaths among the civilian population; there would not have been an obvious link between drug trafficking, terrorism and political corruption, which flourished over these years; there would not have been such poverty, hunger and fear that has engulfed today's Afghanistan and spills far beyond its borders.

History will still give an assessment of how, why and through whose fault everything happened in Afghanistan. What is important now is to draw the main practical conclusion from what happened: a united front and unity of action are necessary; it is time to stop making such mistakes and make them impossible in the future; to do this, stop pursuing an absurd policy of confrontation, deterrence, mutual demonization and start normalizing the entire system of international relations. Before it's too late...
SABINE FISCHER | German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Berlin:
In the best of all worlds the EU and Russia would pull together and do what they can to stabilize the situation in and around Afghanistan and ease the suffering and pain inflicted on the Afghan people by the Western withdrawal and the Taliban. For this to happen, the EU would need to look beyond the predominant black and white interpretation of the events unfolding in the region (the West loses – Russia and China win!) and acknowledge that Western action exposed Russia and its Central Asian allies to severe security challenges. The Russian leadership, on the other hand, would need to leave aside rhetorical triumphalism and posturing (no Western presence in Central Asia!) and acknowledge that it cannot address many of those challenges alone.

Together, the EU and Russia could, among other things, help Central Asian states to build up an infrastructure in support of refugees from Afghanistan and to secure their borders against the influx of terrorists. Neither Russia nor China shows any appetite to engage with Afghanistan economically, so the country will remain dependent on Western engagement if engagement is at all possible with the new Taliban government. This is another area, where synergies could be generated between Russia and the EU. For Moscow this could provide the additional advantage of not having to rely exclusively on China. Never was China's dominance vis-à-vis Russia more clearly acknowledged than in the Russian discourse about Afghanistan in the past weeks. This is another indication of the Russian-Chinese relationship becoming more asymmetric.

Alas, the fact that Afghanistan did happen at all is ample proof that we don't live in this ideal world. The geopolitical conflict between Russia and the EU overshadows all potential areas of cooperation. The political atmosphere in Moscow is rather heated now due to the recent Duma election. There may be a chance of a cool down after September, and perhaps some more space for interaction on Afghanistan. With Germany facing national elections and likely a lengthy period of coalition negotiations others would need to take the lead in the EU. Let's hope that the sides find it in them to take steps towards each other.
GERHARD MANGOTT | University of Innsbruck:
Russia had not expected the Afghan government to hold onto power very long after the withdrawal of U.S. and allied troops. But the pace with which Ghani abandoned the country and the Afghan army melted away was astonishing for Moscow as well. Russia's reaction to the seizure of power by the Taliban is ambivalent. On the one hand, Russia is pleased by the dashing failure of U.S. state-building efforts by military force. This core element of liberal internationalism will no longer be a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy. At least that is what Biden publicly committed to.

On the other hand, the Western withdrawal is of concern to Russia. When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s, Islamist extremists used Afghan soil to infiltrate and destabilize Central Asian countries. Chechen terrorists were trained in Afghan camps. The main concern of the Russian leadership is not to let this happen again. Russia has communicated its red line to the Taliban leadership: that the Taliban must not move beyond the country's borders and not condone Islamist extremists to use Afghanistan as a staging ground for transnational Islamism. If the Taliban expect any support or aid by the Russian government, it will have to respect this red line.

The Russian leadership has maintained regular contacts with the Taliban over the past years. So, both sides are acquainted with each other, but the Russians don't trust the Islamists. This is why Russia held military exercises with Uzbek, Kyrgyz and Tajik forces in both July and August. This was a show of strength and Russia's fallback option if the Taliban will be unwilling or unable to respect Russia's red line. In any case, Russia's role as a security provider for its central Asian clients will increase in the next years.
TONY VAN DER TOGT | Clingendael Institute,The Hague:
The rapid takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban was perceived in the Netherlands as a great shock and a blow to efforts to find a balanced and peaceful solution to the Afghan crisis, in which human rights (including rights of women) are guaranteed. Although it was clear that the US would be leaving, the rapid collapse of the Afghan government and the complete victory of the Taliban took most of us completely by surprise.

In the short term, discussions are primarily focused on the evacuation of Dutch nationals and Afghans at risk, because of their cooperation with Allied forces or their work for human rights or free media. In this context, the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs has immediately visited the region to discuss a possible resumption of the evacuation with Qatar, Pakistan and Turkey. EU discussions have led to collaborative efforts in this respect as well. The Netherlands considers contacts with the Taliban unavoidable, but official recognition of the new regime will depend on respect for human rights, the formation of an inclusive government and guarantees against the spread of renewed terrorist activities from Afghan territory.

The Netherlands has been very active in Afghanistan in counter-terrorism operations and since 2006 in a broader 3-D approach (diplomacy, development and defense). In this context, 25 military personnel have lost their lives. The results of all these efforts are now at stake and this clearly has an enormous impact on current and future debates.

A more profound discussion on the longer-term consequences of the Taliban takeover is still to come, including on how useful development efforts have been and how best to work with NATO or EU partners in future operations.

However, it has already become clear, that the EU also must cooperate more closely with Central Asian and other partners in the region, including on broader security issues, such as the prevention of the spread of terrorism by extremists operating from Afghanistan. Such issues could also constitute a new area of dialogue and cooperation between the EU and Russia.