With the Taliban back in power, Afghanistan is entering a downward spiral of violence. There is a strong possibility of civil strife developing within the Taliban itself and between the Taliban and other extremist organizations. The Taliban takeover and the U.S. withdrawal have created profound problems for European policy in Afghanistan.
While there has been much reflection and soul-searching over Afghanistan in the United States, the EU still has to acknowledge and address the failures of its own strategies. The main lesson to draw from the last twenty years of policy interventions in the country is that the EU adopted an overly superficial notion of democracy support and counterproductive security strategies. Going forward, as the situation on the ground deteriorates, the EU can do little more than focus on humanitarian aid and offer support to keep independent and rights-based groups active.
What Went Wrong?
The United States bears significant responsibility for the current Afghan crisis. The U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction has outlined what went wrong over the past two decades and what the United States needs to learn. This extensive analysis has identified headline problems with strategy, sustainability, personnel, security, and an overall lack of preparedness. These lessons echo other diagnoses of Washington’s failed policies and the reasons that U.S. President Joe Biden and his administration have given for completing the long-awaited U.S. withdrawal.
There is no equivalent publicly available, well-resourced, and systematic analysis of the EU’s share of responsibility for this crisis. The EU needs its own comprehensive, independent inquiry to assess its performance in Afghanistan. Without such introspection, the union is unlikely to learn the necessary lessons of why its policy failed.
The Limits of What Western Democracy Assistance Achieved
Washington may have been the leading architect of the war in Afghanistan, but Europeans played a key supporting role. Europe’s contributions to the overall cost of the war pale in comparison to those of the United States, as the U.S-borne costs have been estimated to total as much as $2.3 trillion. As of June 2021, the U.S. government had appropriated about $145 billion for “reconstruction and related activities” in Afghanistan; more than 60 percent of this total went to security efforts spearheaded by the Department of Defense, though the Department of State and the United States Agency for International Aid also received some of these funds.
Yet Europeans still have important lessons to learn, given that Afghanistan has been the “largest beneficiary of EU development assistance” for some time. Since the 2016 Brussels Conference on Afghanistan, the EU has committed 5 billion euros ($5.6 billion) to the country. The rationale for this “exceptional level of funding” was that such support would ensure “that Afghanistan [would] remain on a firm path to political and economic stability, state-building and development.”
Although it was clear that Afghanistan was not actually on such a path, the EU and its member states kept pouring money into the country. By 2021, they had contributed approximately 11 billion euros ($13 billion) to multilateral efforts to rebuild Afghanistan, an amount that even exceeded the 8.5 billion euros ($10 billion) contribution that the United States had made to these international reconstruction efforts. The EU and its member states collectively were the largest donor to the international organizations that helped rebuild Afghanistan, contributing around 34 percent of the funds for these multilateral reconstruction efforts between 2002 and 2021 (see table 1). Although the United States has borne heavy costs in terms of blood and treasure from fighting this war—to say nothing of the incalculable human suffering the war has spawned for Afghans—Europe’s role in the country’s reconstruction was not insignificant.
|Table 1. U.S. and EU Cumulative Contributions to Multilateral Assistance for Afghan Reconstruction|
|Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund||UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs||Law and Order Trust Fund of Afghanistan||NATO||Other||Total|
|Combined Total Funds||$13.1 billion||$10.8 billion||$6.4 billion||$4.7 billion||$3.0 billion||$38.0 billion|
|Contributions to Total Multilateral Funds||$4.1 billion||$3.1 billion||$1.7 billion||$300 million||$700 million||$9.9 billion|
|U.S. Contributions as a Percentage of Multilateral Funds||32%||28%||26%||7%||23%||26%|
|EU and Member States’ Contributions to Total Multilateral Funds||$5.2 billion||$2.7 billion||$2.2 billion||$2.1 billion||$600 million||$12.8 billion|
|EU and Member States’ Contributions as a Percentage of Multilateral Funds||40%||25%||34%||44%||20%||34%|
|Other Countries’ Contributions to Total Multilateral Funds||$3.7 billion||$5.0 billion||$2.5 billion||$2.3 billion||$1.7 billion||$15.2 billion|
|Other Countries’ Contributions as a Percentage of Multilateral Funds||28%||46%||39%||49%||57%||40%|
Source: Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), Quarterly Report to the United States Congress, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (Arlington, VA: Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, July 2021), https://www.sigar.mil/pdf/quarterlyreports/2021-07-30qr.pdf.
Note: The funding amounts in this table are from 2002 to 2021. These numbers reflect the funding that these parties allocated for multilateral efforts to rebuild Afghanistan. These amounts do not reflect the full cost of reconstruction, which also included enormous amounts of bilateral assistance from these and other countries. The figures have been rounded and may not add up to the precise totals in the source, and these figures include the transition period during which the UK prepared to leave the EU.
As late as November 2020, the EU pledged another 1.2 billion euros (about $1.4 billion) in assistance, funding that was supposedly “conditional” on Afghanistan’s “continued commitment to democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and gender equality.” This link showed that the EU was still operating on the premise that Afghanistan’s reconstruction and democratization went together, when the reality on the ground made it abundantly clear this was not happening.
The EU backed a shallow model of democracy that centralized the reconstruction project and legitimized top-down, elite-centric processes. The EU certainly supported many local democracy and governance projects, such as backing provincial council elections, an Independent Directorate of Local Governance, the UN’s Afghanistan Subnational Governance Programme, and myriad community councils.1 Yet these programs often empowered clientelistic networks of local elites that clashed with EU support for centralizing constitutional powers with elites in Kabul.
The latter prevailed: far higher levels of funding went to centralized state building than those allocated for local democratic empowerment. The EU never resolved this tension and did not push the Kabul-based government to devolve power. A country as diverse and divided as Afghanistan needed a model of democracy assistance that took these attributes into account. Local democracy assistance was undermined by a strong preference for centralization that the EU saw as necessary for pursuing development and stabilization objectives.
The failure of the international community’s limited commitment and narrow approach to democracy support is one of many factors that help explain why Afghanistan’s record on democracy faltered so dramatically. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s first Democracy Index report in 2006 classified Afghanistan as authoritarian, ranking the country number 135 in the world on the quality of its democracy. By 2020, Afghanistan’s score was even lower, and its global ranking had fallen to number 142 in the world. In short, even before the Taliban takeover, any semblance of democracy in Afghanistan had been regressing for over a decade, despite dramatic increases in European funding and the international community’s wider efforts.
This disconnect points to an apparent mismatch between this funding from European capitals and the strategic reality on the ground. For example, as late as July 2021, the EU and its member states maintained donor pledges for 2021–2024 to the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund of around $1 billion, and they had already disbursed about $188 million of those pledges for 2021. Yet, by this stage, over half the districts in Afghanistan were already under Taliban control. The Afghan government’s hold on power in the country’s thirty-four provinces was already limited and diminishing. The EU’s continued disbursal of funds seemed to ignore these rising authoritarian dynamics.
The Perils of Propping Up a Corrupt, Centralized Afghan State
These shortcomings stretch back many years. In 2008, the EU special representative for Afghanistan, Francesc Vendrell, explained that the EU only in “small ways had some impact” and that Afghanistan had turned into a “criminal narco-state.” For Vendrell, this result was a product of the United States’ tendency to ignore EU concerns, making the EU “look pretty pathetic at times.” The United States’ ad hoc coalition with major Europeans powers—especially the UK, France, and Germany—damaged the EU’s collective response from the start.2 The EU needed to be a more critical ally rather than stepping in to finance a failing U.S. strategy. While bemoaning the distortions of U.S. policy, the EU was itself guilty of taking part in an inadequate intervention. The EU should have maintained better benchmarks and agreed on a strategic exit plan to ensure that its efforts and funds were not simply wasted.
The EU should have been a more actively critical partner, as far back as the foundational Bonn Agreement, by not supporting an overly centralized approach and overly powerful Afghan presidency. The agreement’s errors were institutionalized in Afghanistan’s 2004 constitution because of international concerns about regional warlords and what are termed “centrifugal forces.” The EU should have pushed back against this approach, especially as the United States prioritized counterterrorism and shifted its focus to Iraq. German-led police reform, UK efforts to combat drug trafficking, and Italian-supported judicial reform all proved too limited and half-hearted to be successful.
European support for Afghan reforms was too reliant on U.S. and NATO security guarantees. The EU depended also on an increasingly authoritarian Afghan government unable to overcome endemic national and local corruption. The trajectory of this failure suggests an urgent need for the EU to ask why it continued to prioritize a top-down form of democracy that was evidently not working.
This approach treated Afghanistan as a blank slate, as if, after the 2001 fall of the Taliban, top-down democratic institutions and a modernized, centralized Afghan state could be built swiftly. The new constitution was drafted and finalized in 2004 via the Loya Jirga (which roughly means grand council), but messy compromise and haste led to a document that drew heavily on the Afghan Constitution of 1964, as if Afghanistan could turn back the clock. The decision to centralize power in the presidency ignored the strife the country had weathered in the 1980s and 1990s, when two ideologically extreme regimes had attempted to centralize Afghanistan and had failed.
EU policy proposals overlooked the patronage networks that had developed throughout the Afghan civil war and how these networks were often related to tribal allegiances entrenched within the state. This meant that the actors that European and U.S. aid programs supported to build the capacity of state institutions had incentives to pursue their own self-interest rather than the common good. This tendency spread from top-level officials to local Afghan police officers on the streets, with extortion becoming a standard practice. This problem not only damaged the rule of law in Afghanistan but also eroded local trust in the rule of law. Even then, further government centralization and unified state institutions remained the overriding EU and U.S. objective to make the distribution of aid easier. But all this approach achieved was a centralized authoritarian state fuelled by donor funding—the opposite of what was intended.
Outside of Kabul, local Afghan citizens faced endemic levels of violence and corruption, which stoked fears that ultimately helped drive the Taliban insurgency. The Taliban demonstrated a practical understanding of customary law and rural culture, and they dealt with local grievances. On the contrary, the EU’s limited attempts at democracy support were often co-opted by local elites who used them to seize control of state institutions. Europe’s efforts failed to address local populations’ priorities and inadvertently propped up patronage networks. While the EU and the wider international community were trying to build a formally democratic system, the Taliban built informal parallel state structures. The Taliban proved successful because they gained support from local populations facing an elected but corrupt authoritarian government.
What Is Next for EU-Afghan Relations?
In the wake of the Taliban’s return to power and the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops, a new relationship between Europe and Afghanistan has begun. Although the prior Afghan government’s collapse happened suddenly in August 2021, this date was simply the tipping point when the cumulative weight of errors initiated at Bonn came fully to fruition. The resulting chaos, violence, and political transition back to Taliban rule has ended over two decades of EU democracy assistance and state-building efforts—at least for now.
EU aid to Afghanistan has been suspended. While the EU has not formally recognized the Taliban, Brussels maintains “operational engagement” with the new regime. This engagement is the sensible course of action, accepting of the local context and of the geopolitical realities of renewed Russian and Chinese diplomatic attention to the country. In retrospect, this approach validates the unofficial engagement between the EU, the UN, and the Taliban in 2007 that the now-fallen Afghan government punished by expelling two high-level diplomats. Europe is in a far weaker position now than it was then and can do little to influence the new regime.
European governments and the EU’s institutions find themselves obliged to accept that the entire edifice of democracy and state building in Afghanistan has collapsed for the foreseeable future. There is little traction to be gained by continuing to talk about defending liberal rights without reliable local and international partners. Europe must learn to work within the bounds of Afghan norms as it helps to solve local problems in Afghanistan in the future. If any space reopens for any modicum of democracy support, that support will need to be very different—less top-down and more locally rooted.
As humanitarian aid rises to the top of the agenda and U.S. interest in Afghanistan recedes, there will be echoes of the 1980s and 1990s ahead. In those decades, the EU pursued what was much closer to a bottom-up model of humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan. It struggled with the Taliban but became the de facto coordinating body for humanitarian assistance. Europeans built local connections through NGO networks and was far more in touch with the situation on the ground outside of Kabul. This allowed the EU to engage with a much broader set of Afghan voices and help build local capacity where it could.
Even if much has changed since then, something of this same ethos could usefully guide EU policy now. This does not mean that Europeans should entirely give up on defending core human and political rights; rather, the EU ought to take a more indirect approach to help develop local voices and capacity that can oppose the new fundamentalist theocracy. Europe must accept defeat but not back stability at any cost.
The Taliban’s weakness will stem from their attempts to centralize Afghanistan now as the group’s leaders try to govern the country. The Taliban are now responsible for Afghanistan’s economic prosperity and for governing a better-educated and more-urbanized Afghan population than the one that existed twenty years ago. It will pay a price for political power, and Europe needs to wait and see if the Taliban’s fragile alliances with local groups will hold. With the tables turned, Europe should look for independent voices, stand up for human rights, and focus on the humanitarian needs of the Afghan people. This is not an ideal outcome, and it means accepting much lower ambitions, but the defeat of 2021 shows that the EU needs to adjust to living in a post-American world.
Oz Hassan is an associate professor in the Politics and International Studies Department at the University of Warwick.
This article is part of the European Democracy Hub initiative run by Carnegie Europe and the European Partnership for Democracy. This piece draws on past non-Carnegie-affiliated research by the author that was funded by the EU under FP7 Coordination of Non-Community Research Programmes (Grant Number 225722). The views expressed in this piece are those of the author alone.
1 Since September 2021, the EU Aid Explorer tool has hidden detailed information of its projects in Afghanistan for security reasons and for the personal safety of project participants.
2 See Eva Gross, The Europeanization of National Foreign Policy: Continuity and Change in European Crisis Management (Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009); and Eva Gross, “The EU in Afghanistan,” in The European Union as a Global Conflict Manager, edited by Richard G. Whitman and Stefan Wolff (London: Routledge, 2012): 107–119.