With the planned withdrawal of the last NATO troops from Afghanistan just months away, the country faces an uncertain future amid an already deeply unstable security situation.
The recent bombing of a girls’ school in the capital Kabul, which killed as many as 60 people, most of them young girls, highlights the danger facing a country that has had US or NATO troops on its soil for the last 20 years.
After wresting control from the Taliban following the 2001 invasions, Western nations have been working to build up the country’s security apparatus, readying them for a future without NATO forces on the ground.
Analysts say it isn’t yet clear what effect the departure of the final NATO troops will have on the country, but there are obvious risks to the stability of the beleaguered government of Ashraf Ghani.
One effect of a resurgent Taliban and a governmental collapse could have is a renewed surge of migration to Europe.
Four million people displaced
Around 2.5 million Afghans have already fled the country in search of security, many of those heading to Europe. A further deterioration of the security situation in the country could see many more making the same journey, according to Jamie Shea, an Associate Fellow of the International Security Programme at London-based think tank Chatham House.
“If the Taliban do succeed in capturing power, there may be a large number of Afghans who simply do not want to live under a Taliban regime. From a European point of view this has to be a major concern,” he tells Euronews.
Shea, a former NATO official, points out that four million of the country’s population of 36 million are displaced. And it is not just war that is driving many to Europe.
“Over the last decade or so Europe has seen an increasing flow of Afghan migrants. Many of them have been fleeing the conflict, but a lot of them are economic migrants because the unemployment rate there, according to the World Bank is about 25%, the poverty rate has increased from 36% to 47%,” he says.
This is just one of the considerations European powers will be taking into account, as discussions continue over how they can continue to support Afghanistan once there are no more troops on the ground.
‘Over the horizon deterrent’
While the US and NATO footprint in Afghanistan has been small since the transition to the Resolute Support Mission, with just a few thousand troops on the ground, they have played a vital role at times in protecting major cities from enemy incursions.
“Keeping the Taliban at bay, keeping cities under control of the central government will be much harder to do if you don’t have a permanent security presence in the country,” says Shea.
On Monday EU foreign ministers met in Brussels to discuss the issue, in the wake of the attack in Kabul, which so far no group has claimed responsibility for.
“After the terrible attacks of recent days, it is all the more important for the EU to make very clear that Afghanistan and the Afghan government can continue to count on Europe’s support,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters.
But the shape of this support going forward is still under discussion.
Shea says it could be in the form of an “over the horizon deterrent”, something he says Israel has used to great effect.
“They don’t have permanent forces in Lebanon, or Iraq, or Syria, or of course Iran, but they’re very good at picking up threats to themselves from over the border, and are carrying out airstrikes, drone operations, sabotage ops against Iranian ships bringing weapons to Hamas,” he says.
“The big question for the US and NATO is whether they’re going to be able to establish some kind of over the horizon deterrence in the region.”
“So if there was the danger of collapse of the Afghan government because of no power sharing deal being arrived at, if a major city were in danger of falling to the Taliban, then that over the horizon force, Israeli style, could quickly come in to change the balance of forces on the ground.”
Nick Reynolds, Research Analyst for Land Warfare at RUSI, says the support could also be in the form of training specific parts of the Afghan security forces - such as air force personnel - outside of the country.
Is Europe in agreement with the US?
US president Joe Biden’s decision to pull all troops out of Afghanistan by September 11 - which will mark 20 years since the terror attacks that sparked the initial invasion - has forced the hand of its NATO allies.
“All NATO countries involved are reliant on the US for basing, particularly logistics, force protection and medivac chains,” explains Reynolds.
“Without that US network there was never really an option for NATO to remain independently of the US,” he says, pointing out that regardless of whether each nation agrees with the withdrawal, countries involved are doing the “pragmatic thing” and maintaining NATO solidarity.
Amid EU discussions, the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said last Thursday that following the US’s decision “what we have to do is to face the situation that is going to be created.”
“The violence in Afghanistan is increasing, and it’s clear that once the US will withdraw, the European Union troops will not be able to stay,” he said, calling for Europe to “take positive decisions in order to face reality.”
As for the outlook for Afghanistan, Shea points to lessons from history that could serve as a warning as Western forces withdraw.
During the Vietnam war, “the US promised it would stay engaged there, but once Congress cut the budget the South Vietnamese army collapsed within two years.”
“The lesson tends to be that the military will stay fighting as long as the Europeans and the Americans pay.”
And without troops on the ground, “how long realistically will you continue to pay large sums of money to Kabul?” he asks.
“It would have been better in my mind to have stayed for a couple of extra years to have completed that process of standing up the Afghan security forces,” he concludes.
A NATO official told Euronews it couldn’t reveal operation details of troop numbers or exact timelines for withdrawal, but said “we plan to have our withdrawal completed within a few months.”