Lessons from the EU’s failed Afghanistan response

Much will be at stake for Afghanistan and the international community during the coming months, not in the least our credibility. The EU has the chance to prove adherence to its values and geopolitical relevancy by coordinating a sustainable and human rights centred approach, including towards Afghan citizens fleeing the Taliban. But this requires a substantial shift in the current narrative and strong EU leadership.


After U.S. President Joe Biden announced in April to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by September 11th, the worst scenario depicted in a European Parliament resolution - a Taliban takeover after the power vacuum left by the withdrawal of US and NATO troops - became reality much faster than most expected. Member States seemed caught by surprise, but their response also revealed a lack of preparation. What I also found striking was the painful absence of any EU coordination and even of the use of existing EU instruments. On the basis of Article 43 TEU, Borrell could have orchestrated a rescue operation in cooperation with the Member States. The European Air Transport Command (EATC) would have allowed for assets and a coordination centre to be deployed by Brussels. This could have created the so much needed synergy and effectiveness of the national evacuation actions. The EU was not even ready for a swift evacuation of all staff working for EU funded missions and projects. I initiated an urgent letter, co-signed by 66 colleagues,  to Commission President Von Der Leyen and HR/VP Borrell, after alarming signals reached us that Afghan EUPOL staff was not included in the EU evacuation scheme.
As the dust settles, the Commission, EEAS and the Member States have to quickly draw their lessons from this period, as big questions and challenges lie ahead in Afghanistan and require a common approach.


A Common Response

But for the moment, the EU has to use all its powers to save as many people as possible, and to ensure a common response to the Taliban regime. A resolution of the European Parliament, to be adopted this week, will offer guidance. The first challenge will be the continuation of evacuations and support to those left behind after the closure of Kabul Airport. Many human rights defenders, including people defending women’s rights, academics, writers, journalists, politicians and Afghans who cooperated in any way with a western country, mission or project, are still in the country and remain in an extremely dangerous and possibly life-threatening situation. Although the Taliban have issued a declaration claiming that all Afghans who wish to do so are allowed to leave the country, media are already proving different as they report on ‘door-to-door manhunts’ in Kabul in search for those who cooperated with the west. These people at risk need to be supported in escaping the country and subsequently to be evacuated. In a coordinated action, both EU and national diplomatic channels can be used for acquiring the necessary cooperation from the Taliban.



After their evacuation, they need to be offered legal routes to EU Member States, which should be organised through resettlement schemes. The EU could ensure that all risk groups are covered and that Member States all take an equal share. Apart from these groups at special risk, the arrival of a large number of refugees is to be expected in the neighbouring countries. The Member States, together with other partners worldwide, should offer significant financial support to countries like Pakistan and Iran, which already host 2.2 million refugees. However, supporting the region for hosting refugees cannot be the only answer. Yet this is where the JHA Council stopped in its selfish and short-sighted declaration on the situation of Afghan refugees. The EU and other parts of the world need to take their share in the responsibility for the refugees, in line with their commitment to the UN Global Compact on the refugees three years ago. Apart from funding, we should be ready to resettle refugees in our own countries, especially the vulnerable ones in need for better care. A serious resettlement action will also help to convince the countries in the region, who show  reluctance to host a new contingent of Afghan refugees. Furthermore, not all Afghans can be presumed to be safe in the region, where political leaders prioritise good relations with the Taliban. As said, in their declaration, the EU leaders are only focussing on keeping Afghan refugees away. Thanks to the threat of a veto by the Luxembourg minister Asselborn, the Commission was compelled to promise a high-level meeting of the Resettlement Forum by the end of September. 

Also for the persons arriving spontaneously at our borders, we should prepare a coordinated response. Ensuring equal responsibility sharing among the Member States is only fair towards our border countries, but also necessary for the respect of human rights, including access to an asylum procedure. Already now, people are living in substandard and overcrowded camps on the Greek islands, with slow asylum procedures due to a shortage of capacity. And even more likely: if we fail to adopt a fair distribution system, many Afghan refugees will be subject to pushbacks at the border or be faced with a rejection of their claim with the argument that Turkey is a safe third country for them, which painfully contrasts the reality. Up until now, the EU has failed to adopt a legally binding mechanism to ensure an equal responsibility for asylum seekers in the EU. The relevant proposal as part of the New Pact on Asylum and Migration, does not depart from the so-called Dublin rule that the first country of entry remains responsible.
The only instrument we have, is the
Temporary Protection Directive of 20 years old, which has never been used. It provides an effective response for many refugees at our borders, but also if a large number of people is in need of evacuation from another part of the world. The Commission has proposed to repeal it, however without providing an effective alternative. Although Borrell suggested to trigger the TPD directive in early September, the responsible Commissioners Johannsson and Schinas refuse to present this proposal for the Council. They know that the Council will reject this with the argument that it would create a ‘pull factor’. Such attitude means that no preparation whatsoever will be made, at the cost of individual rights of Afghan refugees.

The EU is already hosting many Afghan refugees. Many of them have seen their asylum claim rejected, and are living in an uncertain legal limbo. The Commission has to present convincing guidelines ensuring that they will be granted an asylum status as soon as possible.


Humanitarian Aid

Besides those leaving Afghanistan, the remaining population requires our help more than ever too. Already before the Taliban takeover, Afghanistan was one of the poorest countries in the world and the country receiving the largest sum of EU development assistance. Estimates by the U.N. are that about half of the remaining population in Afghanistan are in need of humanitarian assistance to be able to survive. With many (international) aid organisations having forcibly left the country together with western presence, the situation will become even more precarious. The EU should press the Taliban to guarantee access for these humanitarian organisations.

For development assistance to the new government, Commission President Von der Leyen has rightfully announced that aid will be frozen until certain conditions on the ground are met. It is crucial to make it crystal clear to the Taliban that our development assistance to the Afghan regime is fully conditional upon the respect of basic human and in particular women’s rights. At the same time, the Afghani population is more than ever in need of support from the international community, for food, health services and education. We need to prevent making them the victims of the Taliban, by redirecting every euro of development assistance towards humanitarian actors and local projects. Additionally, the budget for humanitarian aid and development assistance directly to the population requires a significant increase. The impact of Covid-19, the current drought and upcoming winter require that we step up this support. Apart from own funding, a push for an international donor conference for Afghanistan would be a way in which the EU could take the lead to intensify humanitarian aid.

Much will be at stake for Afghanistan and the international community during the coming months, not in the least our credibility. The EU has the chance to prove adherence to its values and geopolitical relevancy by coordinating a sustainable and human rights centred approach, including towards Afghan citizens fleeing the Taliban. But this requires a substantial shift in the current narrative and strong EU leadership.


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