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Europe urges unity on Taliban but is quiet on failed mission

AP/London
Filed on August 16, 2021
A Taliban fighter runs towards crowd outside Kabul airport. — Reuters

Britain and other European nations say they will not recognise any government formed by the Taliban


Like much of the world, European countries have looked on with dismay as two decades of a US-led Western campaign in Afghanistan collapsed within hours.

Britain and other European nations say they will not recognise any government formed by the Taliban and want the West to work together on a common stance.

But UK and European leaders have so far not spoken forcefully on Afghanistan, and their hands are tied in many ways: They have little leverage over the Taliban, and they are deeply reluctant to publicly criticise the withdrawal decision by the United States, their powerful NATO ally, or comment on their own role in the failed intervention.

NATO countries were left with little choice but to pull out the roughly 7,000 non-American forces in Afghanistan after President Joe Biden announced in April that he was ending the US involvement in the war by September, 20 years after the September 11, 2001, attacks.

Malcolm Chalmers, deputy director-general of London’s Royal United Services Institute, said that Britain — which for much for the war contributed the second-largest number of troops to the mission — “was especially upset that the Biden administration didn’t consult it more fully about the decision to withdraw this summer.”

“That is water under the bridge, but the fact that there wasn’t a coordinated alliance approach to the withdrawal makes it even more important now to coordinate a Western response — starting with the question of recognition” of a Taliban government, he said.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Sunday “we don’t want anybody to bilaterally recognise the Taliban.” His government aims to work with allies in the UN Security Council and NATO on that, he said.

“We want a united position among all the like-minded, as far as we can get one, so that we do whatever we can to prevent Afghanistan lapsing back into a breeding ground for terror,” Johnson said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman echoed that sentiment on Monday, saying any question on whether there can be a dialogue with the Taliban needs to be discussed internationally.

“We do not have any illusions about the Taliban and the essence of their movement,” said Steffen Seibert, the spokesman.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said last week that the Taliban “need to understand that they will not be recognized by the international community if they take the country by force.” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell has also warned that the militant group would face “isolation” and “lack of international support.”

Borrell is expected to chair an emergency meeting of EU foreign ministers to discuss Afghanistan on Tuesday, while NATO envoys will also hold talks.

Meanwhile, Russia’s envoy on Afghanistan said that Moscow will decide whether to recognise the new Taliban government based on its conduct.

Chalmers said “Western influence on the Taliban is very limited” compared with that of Pakistan, Iran and China. And Kurt Volker, former US ambassador to NATO, said that warning the Taliban that they face international isolation is a threat “unmoored from reality”.

“It is part of the Taliban’s ideology to reject modernism and the international community — and the reputation won by forcing the US to leave is worth far more than aid budgets,” he wrote for the Center for European Policy Analysis think tank.

“Indeed, having earned a reputation for abandoning its mission, its friends, and its allies, it is the United States that may actually feel more isolated,” Volker added.

Other European allies have made veiled criticisms of NATO’s most powerful member country.

Asked whether France and the US were responsible for the collapse of the armed forces and the unfolding humanitarian crisis, Defence Minister Florence Parly said “France hasn’t been in Afghanistan since 2014. There’s no parallel to make with the US involvement”.

Briefing reporters last week about the crisis in Afghanistan, a senior EU official said that “the decisions which were made in this respect were made in NATO.” He did not single out the alliance’s most influential member, but the criticism was implicit.

Western governments have also appeared to be caught off guard by the stunning speed of the Taliban’s advance on Kabul.

For months, European ambassadors at NATO and the EU have been unable to answer questions from reporters about what security arrangements might be in place in Afghanistan should the situation deteriorate. Questions about how to protect embassies and the Kabul airport, where chaos reigned Monday as scores sought to flee the country, were never unanswered.

British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace choked up during an interview as he expressed deep regret that some of those people will be left behind.

“It’s sad and the West has done what it’s done,” he acknowledged. “We have to do our very best to get people out and stand by our obligations and 20 years of sacrifice. It is what it is.”





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