Europe urges unity on Taliban but is quiet on failed mission

In this photo provided by the French Defense Ministry, French soldiers prepare to board a military Airbus A400M to evacuate French citizens from Afghanistan, Monday, Aug.16, 2021 in Orleans, central France. France is relocating its embassy in Kabul to the airport to evacuate all citizens still in Afghanistan, initially transferring them to Abu Dhabi. Evacuations have been in progress for weeks and a charter flight put in place by France in mid-July. (Etat-Major des Armees via AP)
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Associated Press

LONDON (AP) — European leaders said Monday they will press for a unified international approach to dealing with a Taliban government in Afghanistan, as they looked on with dismay at the rapid collapse of two decades of a U.S.-led Western campaign in the country.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke to French President Emmanuel Macron Monday, stressing the need for a common stand, both on recognizing any future Afghan government and to prevent a humanitarian and refugee crisis.

Both leaders agreed to cooperate at the U.N. Security Council, and Johnson also said he will host a virtual meeting of the Group of Seven leaders on Afghanistan in the next few days. Johnson said on Sunday, “We don’t want anybody to bilaterally recognize the Taliban.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman echoed that sentiment Monday, saying the question of 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.

But U.K. 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 criticize 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 U.S. involvement in the war by September, 20 years after the Sept. 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.

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 recognize 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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.

The U.K. has repeatedly alluded to how it had been put in a “very difficult position” to continue the mission once the United States announced its decision to pull out, and British leaders have spoken with a tone of resignation as the situation deteriorated rapidly after NATO’s exit.

“I think it’s fair to say that the U.S. decision to pull out has accelerated things, but this has been in many ways something that has been a chronicle of an event foretold,” Johnson said Sunday.

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

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

Italian far-right leader Giorgia Meloni was much more direct, saying: “Let’s give a welcome back to the cynical Obama-Clinton-Biden doctrine: ‘If you can’t win, create chaos.'”

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.

In the past few days, U.S., British and other Western governments have scrambled to evacuate their embassies, their citizens and Afghans who have helped with their military mission as the Taliban seized power.

“All of us, the government, the intelligence services, the international community, all of us misjudged the situation,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas admitted Monday. “Neither we nor our partners and experts did foresee the speed with with the Afghan security forces withdrew and capitulated.”

British Defense 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.”