Dramatic humanitarian situation in Afghanistan lies ahead, says Josep Borrell

F.P. Report        

Brussels: This has been the Afghan summer. During the last 20 days of August we have been engaging on the Afghanistan tragedy. Because what we have seen in Afghanistan is certainly a tragedy for the Afghan people, a setback for the West and a potential game-changer for international relations. If we want to look at Afghanistan after the end of August, we have to look at that from these three points of view: as the Afghan people tragedy, as the Western setback and, for the whole world, a change in international relations.

High Representative/Vice-President Josep Borrell at the EP debate has said that we have all seen the collapse of the Afghan army and government and the takeover by the Taliban in less than 10 days. Since then, the Taliban have announced their interim government, which is neither inclusive nor representative and includes people who are on United Nations sanctions list. We know what we can expect from them.

Our initial focus was on the evacuations. The European Union efforts to provide protection for the Afghans most in need was important, but insufficient and has to continue. The Afghan crisis is not over. We discussed about this at the [meeting of the] European Union Foreign and Defence Ministers, how to operate in the months ahead. They charged me and the European External Action Service to try to coordinate the efforts in order to evacuate some European Union nationals that are still there, some members of our former staff who are still there and many other Afghans who have been engaging on building a democratic and free Afghanistan according to our values and with our support. Now we have to give them as much protection as we can.

But also we have to look with an important self-criticism about the lessons that we can learn on the state-building efforts elsewhere in the world. Because what has happened in Afghanistan should teach us a lot about this exercise of state-building, which is much more difficult than what [former] President [of the United States, George W.] Bush could have had imagined before the invasion of Iraq. What does it mean for our relations with the United States? What does it mean for the development of a European Union strategic autonomy, for our security and for our defence policy?

On Afghanistan itself: a dramatic humanitarian situation in the country lies ahead. Food prices are rising and the financial system is in freefall.

The Commission has decided to multiply by four our help, from €50 to €200 million. Four times more, but still a drop of water in the ocean. Commissioner [for Crisis Management, Janez] Lenarčič confirmed it at the meeting with the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres convened yesterday. It was a success from the point of view of the financial resources raised. We will try to ‘stay and deliver’.

To have any chance of influencing events, we have no other option but to engage with the Taliban. Engagement does not mean recognition. No, engaging means talking, discussing and agreeing – when possible.

With the [Foreign] Ministers at the Council, we agreed that the level and nature of this engagement will depend on the actions of the new government on the following five benchmarks. Benchmarks that have to be used in order to calibrate how the new government behaves and according to their behaviour how do we engage with them. Nothing original. You know very well what I am talking about. We have not invented anything extraordinary new, but we have to have some benchmarks. And the first benchmark is that Afghanistan will not be a base for the export of terrorism to other countries. The second [benchmark] is respect for human rights, in particular women’s rights, the rule of law and freedom of the media. Maybe you can believe that I am mentioning a kind of oxymoron, because to talk about human rights from the Taliban side may be a pure oxymoron, but this is what we have to ask them. [The third benchmark is] the establishment of an inclusive and representative transitional government, which by the first sign has not been fulfilled at all. [The fourth benchmark is] free access for humanitarian aid. And [the fifth benchmark is] to allow the departure of foreign nationals and Afghans at risk who wish to leave the country, as already decided by the United Nations and in line with commitments made by the Taliban themselves.

This last benchmark was strongly discussed among [Foreign] Ministers, because nobody wants that our offer to provide protection to the Afghans at risk can be considered as a kind of call effect like, for some Ministers, happened in 2015 and 2016 during the Syrian crisis. No, we do not want to create a call effect, but we want to protect a lot of Afghan people that deserve our protection. And they are quite many. We have to discuss with the Taliban how we can offer and make effective this protection.

In order to implement these benchmarks, we agreed to coordinate our contacts with the Taliban. We are considering a European Union presence in Kabul, coordinated by the European External Action Service. In fact, our Delegation there has never been closed. The embassies of the Member States have been closed and they are not going to reopen, but we still have a Delegation that can be – since it is not an embassy, because we are not a state- used as an antenna if the security conditions are met, in order to discuss with the government in a closer way than through videoconferences or through messages.

It is clear that we need to engage more with Afghanistan’s neighbours and regional actors. We therefore agreed, at the Council, to task the European External Action Service to coordinate the efforts of the European Union, strengthening our regional outreach, to try to convene a regional political platform for cooperation among Afghanistan neighbours. At Ministerial level we will do that during the next United Nations General Assembly week.

Certainly all Ministers of the European Union are doing their duty and are travelling to the region and to the neighbours, but I think that we need a kind of coordination among us. It will be much easier. Instead of 27, we could speak with one voice.  We will never substitute the efforts of the Ministers of the Member States, but we should try to coordinate them.

The regional context is highly complex with competing agendas among the main players. But amidst the rivalries there are also joint interests and there is a compelling need for more regional approaches. To work in front of the population flows that will be happening, it will happen, nobody knows how big they will be, not as big as in the Syrian war, but it will depend on the evolution of the situation in the country. We have to prevent terrorism increase and fight against organised crime, including drug trafficking and people trafficking.

We are already working on a resettlement forum. My colleague Commissioner in charge of Home Affairs [Ylva Johansson] is working hard in order to organise a resettlement forum in order to share these people when they will be on the move. And they will be on the move if the Taliban allow them to do so.

These are the action tracks, this is the action that I will be in charge of developing in the coming months. Together, the Team Europe: the European External Action Service, Commission and Member States. It will be difficult, but I think that all together can do better than each one on their side.

Later, we will have to continue discussing about the lessons that we can learn. I think that an evaluation has to be done. Not just to talk about it, but to be seriously engaging on an evaluation. We talk a lot about public policy evaluation. Well, this is a case for public policy evaluation. What has been wrong? Not on the last 20 days, but on the last 20 years. Because I am sure that a lot can be learnt for future action in other parts of the world where we are engaged.

And I am hoping that this discussion today will help to understand better what has happened and to engage positively on the answer that the Afghans are waiting from us.

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