By any standard, things are going bad in Afghanistan. This is partly due to profound disagreements between participating countries regarding to the objectives of the mission and the strategy to be implemented – not to mention disagreements within states. For the United States and British governments, Afghanistan is a matter of national security. And despite a declining popular support, the memory of the terrorist attacks in 2001 and 2005, which were prepared in part in South Asia, are still very alive. For London and Washington, it is preferable to fight the terrorist threat over there than over here, although strong voices are now rising against this argument even in America.
On the other hand, for most European countries the military presence in Afghanistan is nothing more than a gesture to safeguard the appearance of transatlantic solidarity. The terrorist threat is widely regarded as non existential – not to say non-existent – and the presence in Afghanistan is perceived more as part of the problem than as part of the solution to the terrorist threat in Europe. Hence, Europeans showed little enthusiasm to the American openness during the latest NATO summit in Strasbourg and they proved unable to commit a significant amount of civilian – instead of military – forces.
Yet, there are many reasons to challenge the common view that Afghanistan has no connection to European security. To begin with terrorism: several terrorist cells tightly linked to Afghanistan and Pakistan – some of which were ready to take action – have been dismantled in the recent years. In Germany, members of the Sauerland cell were arrested in September 2007 with several hundred kilograms of liquid explosives. They allegedly targeted the American base in Ramstein and the international airport of Frankfurt.
The German terrorists would not have been such a threat without Afghanistan. Indeed, they wanted to fight alongside Afghans against American forces, but they were ordered to go back to Germany in order to carry out an attack on European soil and to maximise their ‘added value’. More importantly, they were indoctrinated and received crucial jihadi training in terror camps where they learned the basics of terrorism (surveillance, preparation, manufacturing of explosives, tactical skills, etc.).
It is often underestimated how important such training is to terrorist groups. In Europe, we observe a trend in jihadi terrorism towards more self-radicalisation through the internet. These lone-wolf terrorists are harder to spot by intelligence services, but at the same time they pose a lower threat to national security for it is extremely challenging for an isolated individual to plan, prepare and carry out a successful terrorist attack of significant scale.
Some people argue that military operations in Afghanistan feed Islamist propaganda and contribute to the radicalisation and the recruitment of new militants. Indeed, a combination of declining violence in Iraq and rising violence in Afghanistan led to a shift in media attention from Iraq to Afghanistan last year. This refocussing of the media influenced the jihadi preferences; that is to say, Afghanistan became the preferred battlefield for combat and propaganda.
Nonetheless, this argument is wrong; leaving Afghanistan will not be a universal panacea to all security problems. An improper withdrawal would have dire consequences for national, regional and international security. At the national level, the Taleban could quickly come back to power and organise mass repression against their opponents. Is that what Europeans want? At the regional level, a Taleban come-back could have a destabilising impact as well as encourage Pakistan to deepen its ties with Islamists in order to maintain some form of control over its unstable neighbour. Is that what Europeans want? At the international level, a return on grace for al-Qaeda would undeniably present a grave threat. Is that what Europeans want?
The answer is no. Time will come to leave Afghanistan. But only when the Afghan authorities are ready to handle their own security.
There is only one way out for the Atlantic Alliance to avoid total fiasco in Afghanistan and prevent its critics from writing a premature obituary for the organisation: firstly, NATO should develop a holistic strategy determining precisely the objectives and the enemy, i.e. who to fight and who to co-operate with; and, secondly, NATO should make sure that this new strategy is coherent with the interests of all its members, most of which believe that their military presence is counter-productive.
There is thus an urgent need to launch national debates (and a European debate) to define the strategic interest in Afghanistan. This debate must be open to public opinion, and it is the responsibility of policy-makers, journalists, military staff and scholars to identify and analyse all the available options and related risks. At Egmont Institute, we have already took a step in this direction when publishing an important issue paper on Afghanistan. Some other think tanks have followed, but it is time to take the debate on to the next level.
If we come to the conclusion that our security depends upon the evolution of the situation in South Asia, then Europeans need to strengthen their efforts and take more responsibilities. Conversely, if we come to the conclusion that European deployments harm more than they benefit our security, then it will be a good time to share this view with our allies and take the logical resulting measures.
• Credit to Wikipedia for picture.