Afghan crisis a 'catalyst' for European defence autonomy

Brussels considers 5,000-strong rapid response force to assert operational independence from Washington

FILE PHOTO: European Commission vice-president Josep Borrell speaks during a news conference on the EU's cybersecurity strategy, in Brussels, Belgium December 16, 2020. Kenzo Tribouillard/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo
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The Afghanistan crisis should be the launch pad for a new European military force independent of the US, the EU’s foreign policy chief told a meeting of the bloc's defence ministers on Thursday.

Josep Borrell favours the idea of a 5,000-strong rapid response force which could carry out operations such as the Kabul airlift by itself.

European countries were forced to end evacuation efforts when the US refused to extend the deadline. The same reliance on Washington led to the wider Nato withdrawal from Afghanistan and the subsequent fall of Kabul.

Mr Borrell described the crisis as a historic moment as he prepared to address the EU defence conference.

“Sometimes there are events that catalyse history,” he told reporters. “It creates a breakthrough. I think that the Afghanistan events of this summer are one of those cases.

“I think that it is clear that the need for more European defence has never been as evident as today.”

Brussels hopes to present a new strategic blueprint by the end of the autumn to help Europe prepare for future crises.

“We see clearly that what has happened in Afghanistan will be exploited by anti-western actors. That's why we have to step up our integrated approach, combining military, civilian, development and diplomatic efforts,” Mr Borrell said after the meeting.

“We need to increase our capacity to be able to act autonomously when and where necessary,” he added.

Mr Borrell said the EU had not been ready to sent a mission to secure Kabul airport, whereas the Americans had.

He said a new rapid response team would be an improvement on the EU’s current “battle groups”, which are rotating military units that have been on standby since 2007 but never deployed.

“The battle groups are done on a national basis. Wvery month one is ready to act, but, in fact, they have never acted,” Mr Borrell said.

“We need to go for something more ready to be activated, more operational.”

The French military escorts people from Kabul to Paris during the Nato airlift, which ended when the US refused to extend the deadline for evacuation operations. AP

Many politicians in Europe have bemoaned the fact that Washington’s decisions effectively left the hands of its Nato allies tied.

Europe is more exposed than the US to a potential refugee wave resulting from the Afghanistan crisis, which EU leaders are determined to prevent.

UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said on Wednesday that there was no viable alternative coalition once the US had decided in April to leave Afghanistan.

The same scenario played out at the end of the airlift, when US President Joe Biden rebuffed calls to extend the operation beyond August 31.

We are not as far advanced with our own capabilities as we imagined
Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer

German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said the West’s credibility depended on Europe being less reliant on the US.

“We have seen in Afghanistan that we are not as far advanced with our own capabilities as we imagined,” she said at the EU defence conference. “We were dependent on the Americans.

“Afghanistan is a bitter end, a severe defeat. Whether it is a permanent weakening of the West … depends especially on us becoming more independent as Europeans.”

Slovenia's Defence Minister Matej Tonin suggested a rapid-reaction force could comprise 5,000 to 20,000 troops but deployment should not depend on a unanimous decision by the EU's 27 member states.

“If we are talking about the European battle groups, the problem is that, because of the consensus, they are almost never activated,” Mr Tonin, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, told reporters.

“Maybe the solution is that we invent a mechanism where the classic majority will be enough and those who are willing will be able to go [ahead]."

Klaudia Tanner, the Austrian defence minister, said the issue was one of political will to act independently.

“It’s not about the capabilities that this entry force would have, or already has, but it’s about the political decision to use it rapidly at the right time,” she said.

Talks on the EU’s new strategic compass began before the fall of Kabul. Brussels hopes to formally adopt it in early 2022.

The bloc’s military chiefs issued a warning in May that the limited standing of the EU’s battle groups could leave Europe unable to act in a rapid-response situation.

Updated: September 02, 2021, 4:11 PM