It has been almost 20 years since the international community started its massive engagement in Afghanistan. Some may wish to look at this country principally in terms of failure and there are indeed harrowing statistics.
Last year, over 10,000 people were injured or killed there; Afghanistan leads the world’s heroin production, and large numbers of Afghans continue to flee their country, with over 30,000 irregular Afghan migrants arriving in Europe in 2019, making it the largest immigration group into Europe.
It may be tempting to conclude that our efforts are doomed and that, with crises closer to home, we better cut our losses and run. That would be a mistake. As it would mean having to make a bigger effort later on. While no one is held to the impossible, we have a big stake in the future of Afghanistan and we need to remain mobilised.
Why? Because in today’s world, as COVID-19 reminds us, there is no “there and here.” Afghanistan’s problems will continue to travel. Because Afghanistan’s peace is our peace.
Because, apart from the Taliban, there is ISIS and other terrorist groups, warlords, narco-traffickers, and opportunists of all sorts that can further destabilise the country and export threats.
Even if, at times, Afghanistan feels like the modern version of the Myth of Sisyphus, disengagement would create greater problems, with a domino effect reaching Europe and beyond.
What is at stake? Afghanistan is a microcosm, bringing many challenges of our world into a single place: global power politics, terrorism, drugs, ethnic divides, migration, poverty and human rights violations.Afghanistan is also a country into which a lot of blood, money and political capital have been poured by Europeans, with setbacks along the road.
But Afghanistan is also a land of opportunities; a place where the new global geopolitical order is being shaped, as the US is organising its military withdrawal. It is an attempt to build democracy in a volatile regional environment.
It is a rich country with poor people: it has vast natural resources and assets, untapped because of war and mismanagement. There is an embryonic dialogue among the main players and a nascent peace process.
"It may be tempting to conclude that our efforts are doomed and that, with crises closer to home, we better cut our losses and run. That would be a mistake"
Since 2001, the European Union and its Member States have worked together deploying all their political, military, diplomatic and financial efforts to build the Afghan state, protecting its sovereignty, its constitution and its aspirations.
It has been an uphill effort. But, compared to where Afghanistan was 20 years ago, there are solid achievements for girls’ education, women’s empowerment, healthcare, press freedom and civil society. These gains need to be protected. If a new chapter in Afghanistan’s history starts, Europeans cannot just remain spectators.
What is next? First, we need a real ceasefire. Every day there is more call for it, at the UN, NATO and the Organisation of Islamic Countries. The Coronavirus pandemic adds further urgency to this call.
Second, the recent UN Security Council resolution sent a signal of reality check: the world shall not accept an “Islamic Emirate”. The principles of the UN Charter must be upheld and the gains in social and political freedoms must be preserved.
Third, political leaders and groups need to find an inclusive way to work together for peace, seeing each other as political contenders, not enemies.
The Taliban, for their part, must not arrive as military victors. There is no checkmate here, at best a draw. Changing status from pariah to signatory of an agreement with the US does not provide political legitimacy.
In the future, the Taliban will perhaps participate in Afghanistan’s government. Afghans will need to learn to work with former enemies within a democratic space and the international community will have to make choices.
Fourth, the military drawdown should not lead to the withdrawal of international assistance. Europe, as the world’s first aid donor, can mobilise massive funds and combine it with trade. But maintaining such assistance will be linked to further steps in the political reconciliation process.
There is little time until the Donors Conference, to be organised in late 2020 by Finland and UN, to show progress and incentivise donors in tight financial times.
"The EU has no hidden agenda in Afghanistan: what you see is what you get. We can be an honest broker, supporting the national reconciliation process, jointly with other partners"
In all of this, the EU can help, with three overall conditions. One, the EU will not pay for what others have decided. Early association of the EU to the peace process will contribute to link it to implementing its outcome. The days of taking the EU for granted are gone.
Two, the gains of the last 19 years must be upheld, from republican wins to the rights of women, youth and minorities.
Three, rebuilding and stabilising Afghanistan must be a joint international effort. The EU has no hidden agenda in Afghanistan: what you see is what you get. We can be an honest broker, supporting the national reconciliation process, jointly with other partners. And I appeal to all partners of goodwill to join this effort and remain engaged.
After many years of conflict, there is a chance for a new beginning. While this is ultimately in the hands of Afghans themselves, we have an obligation to support them and prevent a return to violence and repression of fundamental rights and freedoms.