After twenty years of US military involvement in the country, on the 30th of August of this year, the last American soldier left Afghanistan. As American troops withdrew from the country, the Western-friendly Islamic Republic of Afghanistan crumbled down, while local provinces and their supposed “security forces” fell one by one to the Taliban, most of the time without any actual fight. Thus, in about four months, between May and August 2021, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan was reconstituted under Taliban rule, frustrating the US-led coalition’s efforts to create a stable and moderate regime in the country. Along with this political failure, a humanitarian crisis ensued, with Western and local diplomatic personnel taking refuge at the Hamid Karzai International Airport of Kabul after the fall of the city, becoming an easy target for the new regime.
Many international observers have described President Biden’s implementation of his withdrawal decision, if not the decision itself, as largely confused and poorly carried out. However, the Commander-in-Chief has defended his actions, stating that the Afghan government had been provided with every tool necessary to defend itself from the Taliban threat, thus pointing to a lack of political will in the Afghan elite, rather than an absence of military capacity. Most notably, the disengagement from Afghanistan also sparked criticism among some American allies that were part of the mission in the country and that traditionally followed American foreign policy quite slavishly. More specifically, many European countries that opposed the immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan complained about President Biden’s decision, describing it as precipitous and unilateral. As a result, the issue of so-called “European strategic autonomy”, meaning developing the military capacity and foreign policy coordination needed to act independently from the US, was raised once again, since without American involvement and support, no NATO country could provide the facilities needed to keep a military presence in Afghanistan.
The best tool that has been achieved so far in this direction, after the historical failure of more integrated attempts at creating a “European Army”, is the “Common Security and Defence Policy” (CSDP) of the EU, as part of the broader “Common Foreign and Security Policy” (CFSP). The CSDP has been established in its current form, although there were previous examples of military cooperation within the EU framework, through the 2007 Treaty of Lisbon. This Treaty also included a mutual assistance and solidarity clause and created the European External Action Service (EEAS) (under the authority of the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy), creating a new framework for foreign policy coordination in the EU. However, the main decisions regarding the CSDP are taken by unanimity in the European Council and the Council of the European Union. In terms of military capabilities, only the EU Battlegroups, as the “minimum militarily effective, credible and coherent, rapidly deployable force package” of around 1500 men, can be employed for possible EU operations and at least two Battlegroups are indefinitely required to be on stand-by. Moreover, the EU could employ the European Corps (Eurocorps), intergovernmental military groups under NATO-EU command structures with a standing force of around 1000 soldiers each, although they do not respond directly to Brussels and cannot be used for rapid-intervention missions. In general, however, it is largely recognized that the EU lacks all the basic features – foreign policy coordination and/or central direction, a shared budget on defense, a single and capable army providing security to the whole region – of common defense and that there have been only timid attempts at military cooperation.
Although the image that has been sketched so far shows a largely fragmented European defense scenario, there are some factors that may justify the push towards greater military integration in Europe. First of all, increasing foreign threats, especially from the East (Russia, Belarus, Turkey), along with the US strategic realignment from the European/Middle-Eastern theatre towards East Asia, make EU countries weaker and more vulnerable to aggressive foreign actors. It also seems that the EU citizens are not opposed to the idea of a common European defense project as previously thought, with recent polls showing that a majority (55%) of Europeans are in favor of creating an EU army, with around 68% of them believing in the need for greater involvement of the EU in defense. Therefore, the Afghan withdrawal partly served as an effective pretext for reopening the debate on “European strategic autonomy”.
As part of this debate, calls for the establishment of a common European army have been raised by representatives of both member States and EU institutions. For instance, the Afghan case and its consequences were mentioned directly by the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen as one of the reasons to pursue a “European Defence Union” in her last State of the Union Address. This bold statement echoed what had been previously said by the High Representative Josep Borrel, who argued that “the need for more European defence has never been as much evident as today after the events in Afghanistan” and called for the creation of a “rapid response force” of around 5000 soldiers. Shifting the focus to national leaders, French President Emmanuel Macron, as a long-time supporter of the idea of “European strategic autonomy”, enthusiastically embraced the new push towards stronger military integration, asking the EU to take “more responsibility for its security and defence” in a joint statement with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. Even among some Mediterranean member States these ideas seem to be popular, with Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi recognizing the need for a debate on how to strengthen European defense and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis calling the idea of a European army “a mature proposal”. Since the US is the main security provider in the region and the leader of NATO, some could argue that they have reason to oppose these plans, but the Biden administration has actually been very supportive of letting European allies build up their own military capabilities, although American involvement in this process would be of a passive nature.
Of course, there has also been some opposition to these ideas, especially coming from countries generally against greater military spending/involvement and states that fear “European strategic autonomy” would be a synonym of lower security provision from NATO and the US. In the first category, we need to include Germany, with German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer arguing that the Afghan crisis has demonstrated the importance of closer cooperation with the US rather than the need to be more militarily independent. In the second category we find many Central and Eastern European countries, such as the Baltic States and Poland, where the strong historical awareness of a close foreign threat coming from Russia makes them reluctant to abandon or scale back the US-NATO framework that has served them so well in the past twenty years.
Therefore, there seem to be both opportunities and challenges in the path towards a European common defense, with the main obstacles being the unanimous voting mechanism that is needed for the most relevant decisions taken at an EU level, as in the case of the CSDP, and the lack of a truly coordinated foreign policy. Finally, although there cannot be any assurances regarding the future establishment of a European army, especially through a common decision-making process, new attempts on a smaller scale are being made on a voluntary basis, as in the case of five EU States, Germany, Finland, the Netherlands, Portugal and Slovenia, that have recently launched an initiative to develop land-based forces of brigade strength (5000 men) to be employed in security activities with the permission of other non-participating member states.