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Europe in Afghanistan: After Nearly 20 Years, What Has Been Achieved?

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Europe in Afghanistan: After Nearly 20 Years, What Has Been Achieved?

The EU says it will continue in its role as major peacebuilder, as well as peacemaker, for Afghanistan

Europe in Afghanistan: After Nearly 20 Years, What Has Been Achieved?
Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Sharida Jackson)

The arrival of a new EU Commission has seen the renewal of ambition in European foreign policy. This ambition is more necessary than ever for the EU’s approach to Afghanistan after months of immobility caused by EU and Afghan elections and the breakdown of U.S.-Taliban diplomacy. Documents leaked by TOLO News last October revealed the Afghan government’s preparation for a new round of “intra-Afghan dialogues,” which are projected to begin this year in Oslo with the cooperation of the EU and Norway after the Afghan government’s presidential transition of power is finally settled.

The new EU Commission has shown every desire to carry out a highly ambitious foreign policy — a foreign policy in which the EU’s international development clout is a central lever of its power. Successive published EU strategies for Afghanistan show a desire to be seen as upholding the core values of the EU’s founding treaties — human rights and democracy — while its upcoming monster reforms (the “EU green deal” being chief among them) purport to increase this ambition with the establishment of a “strong green diplomacy” that will champion a new global paradigm of sustainable capitalism. The EU has also clearly been trying to orient toward a role distinct from that played by the United States in its approach to a diplomatic solution to the Afghan war. Where the U.S. has for the last few years focused on direct peace between itself and the Taliban, the EU is focused on what it sees as a more long-term solution: peace between the adversaries within Afghanistan itself. A major argument in favor of the EU method is that the intra-Afghan dialogue includes the voices of Afghan civil society, who are actively trying to preserve the fragile progress Afghanistan has made since 2001. 

The problem for the EU and Norway as they try to assert a common peacebuilding goal for Afghanistan is that, over the last 20 years, it has been hard to keep European states focused on one goal. The Afghan mission had too many different imperatives to keep track of: the show of solidarity with the United States after 9/11, UN Security Council Resolution 1383 to stabilize and democratize Afghanistan, the NATO anti-terrorism mission, the development of EU foreign policy institutions, and whatever other specific foreign policy objectives each European nation had at the time.

Some states like Norway clearly valued the NATO mission and appearing like a good ally to the U.S. above all else (though Oslo did contribute to women’s empowerment programs and state building through multilateral organizations). Others, like Germany, were more politically inclined to diverge from the United States, wanting to appear less like a military interventionist and more as a country that dealt with core issues U.S. policy tended to overlook (hence its focus on training civilian police rather than militarized security forces, for instance). 

The purpose of the European presence in Afghanistan was hampered from 2001 onward by lack of clarity, lack of visibility, lack of coherent policy between allied states and development aid partners, conflicting priorities and objectives, failure to properly prepare for the Afghan context, and failure to monitor and report on development activities and outcomes, among other issues. While many of the obstacles, like the degradation of the security situation, were out of development donor and implementers’ control, too many of the obstacles listed above were self-inflicted by the European states. Exacerbating these obstacles, Europe was overshadowed not only by U.S. development programs that were firmly tied to wartime objectives but also by the unreliability of the Afghan government. This unreliability led to many European donors making the choice to undermine the Afghan government’s development with off-budget development aid contributing to the already bad fragmentation of development aid. The result of all of this is that concrete outcomes of the EU mission to date are hard to totally gauge. 

The consequences of ongoing conflict, project fragmentation, and project overlap could not be better illustrated than by the 2007-2016 EUPOL mission, which took over Germany’s unsuccessful police training efforts. The EU’s 2017 evaluation report concludes that grave internal and external factors contributed to making EUPOL’s mission a failure. It was a perfect demonstration of the challenge in getting EU states to agree on one strategy and shaping a credible EU mission as many EU members continued to give attention to parallel U.S. police programs. A 2019 evaluation commissioned by the EU concludes the same, stating the strategy to “civilianize” the Afghan police was not achieved due to the push to militarize in the context of war by competing U.S. programs. 

The EU takeover of Italy’s rule of law reform duties had slightly better results with the 2019 EU evaluation noting that the 2007-2016 period saw “modest improvements in the governance sectors.” In terms of developing governance, the EU touted improvements in local and municipal revenue collection and improved public sector budgeting processes. A 2018 ATR Consulting study funded by Oxfam and the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan did find that between 2008 and 2016, domestic revenue increased from $750 million to $2.1 billion. Another specific positive achievement toward achieving the aim of good governance and democratization was the EU’s electoral monitoring. In addition to financial contributions to the UN for electoral support to Afghanistan (ELECT), the EU’s Election Observation Mission (EOM) uncovered 1.5 million suspicious votes in the 2009 Afghan presidential elections. 

Positive feedback was much stronger for agricultural development where there was success preventing animal diseases and improving veterinary care for livestock, improving delivery of services to rural areas and development of an agricultural private sector, and enhancing access to quality planting materials. Positive feedback is also strong for policy development in the health sector, which is progressing although capacity building is still lagging. EU programs “significantly enhanced access to and utilization of health services around the country” according to the 2019 evaluation, with a major victory occurring with reduced maternity and child mortality rates, which were high even by developing country standards. Teen pregnancies also went down. However, the prevalence of malnourishment has increased, as has the number of children under five with anemia. The health sector is furthermore riddled with corruption, with patients having to pay bribes for services and with doctors using public services to poach clients for their private practices. While the Afghan Ministries of Agriculture and Health coordinate well with national donors, issues around fragmentation and reporting need to be dealt with in both sectors.

There is strong concern in the EU’s commissioned evaluations for the sustainability of these gains. EU member states furthermore compromise their spoken goal of “Afghan ownership” with “off-budget” aid through UN agencies, NGOs, and development partners. The Oxfam/Swedish Committee for Afghanistan study explicitly states this “off-budget” aid has the effect of overwhelming the institutional capacity of the Afghan government to effectively monitor donor-financed projects. The study further notes a distinct lack of rigorous results frameworks by which to hold donors and the Afghan government accountable for their performance. The results that are being reported are not easy to qualify or quantify and assessment focuses too much on immediate output rather than longer-term outcomes or impacts. While some Afghan ministries are able to demonstrate organizational leadership, the government’s overall weakness allows donors to pursue their own objectives through what the IMF calls a “parallel civil service” created by off-budget spending on better-paid, unofficial civil servants.

And this is just evaluating EU aid specifically. European countries like Germany, Norway, and Sweden show on their websites that much of their aid money is distributed through multilateral organization funds like the World Bank’s Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF), which is one of the largest sources funding the Afghan government outside of the security sector (rounded up to about 40 percent of civilian government funding). The problem is that in 2011 and 2018, organizations with the mandate to review the ARTF’s performance stated information access to results and outcomes of donations was limited. The degree to which European state money is dispersed through IGOs and private NGOs that do not publish a complete picture of their development work means that the total positive (and negative) contributions by Europe to Afghanistan are for the present unknowable. 

With all of that in mind, why was it important to review European peacebuilding accomplishments and issues? Given that the EU has announced that it will continue in its role as major peacebuilder as well as peacemaker for Afghanistan, it is first important to know what’s at stake if Europe is removed from the equation. If we are to judge Europe’s importance as an actor— and Europe clearly desires to be seen as an actor of importance— we must first have greater transparency and accountability from Europe as to what its efforts are accomplishing. Reviewing what Europe has done for Afghanistan also helps us evaluate if it is the right actor to midwife a peace process. Do its actions bear out that it has the country’s best interests at heart? 

Our best answer from the evidence we have is: it’s complicated. Europe’s aims are frequently expressed by European politicians as anti-terror focused and recently anti-migration. It’s obvious from the situation in Afghanistan that terrorism and migration are still issues, but the humanitarian and institutional situation arguably was improved. Afghan society certainly acts like there are important socio-political gains it wants to protect against a Taliban takeover. This could be seen as a success from the point of view of the more idealized goals of Europe: acting as a beacon of human rights and democracy. The problem is that outside of diplomatic documents and forums, Europe’s governments rarely speak about Afghanistan along those lines. The priorities are therefore still not clear and this may in fact be contributing to the lack of clarity of development reporting. 

This lack of clear priority is equally a problem going into the EU-Norway hosted peace talks. The premise of the dialogue format is in itself good — all sectors of Afghan society, including a good proportion of women and minorities, are present to negotiate their future and protect their existing rights while compromising their shared territorial space in favor of an end to war. During the first round of the dialogue, hosted July last year by Qatar and organized by Germany, the parties were able to draw up a jointly presented statement of principles outlining their stances on the issues. While the Taliban dodged some major questions, the representatives of Afghanistan’s civil society showed unity on preserving the republican system and human rights. With the EU and Norway taking over Qatar and Germany’s roles, there needs to be assurance that Europe is not merely playing the game of other would-be peacemakers who host peace talks for the prestige of it or for the ability to expediently wash their hands of Afghanistan.  

On the other hand, Afghanistan too must show that they are not passive peacebuilding recipients but peacebuilding actors. The structure of the dialogue will provide an optimal opportunity for Afghan society to set the agenda and work together to craft a peace that truly belongs to Afghanistan. Afghans must also step up in light of the reports that question the sustainability of the peacebuilding gains that have been made. After decades of war and 20 years of peacebuilding funded and organized by world powers, Afghans can change the calculus of these reports by themselves taking ownership of development projects and proving doubters wrong — ensuring that the development projects underway will have positive long-term impact. The EU and other European states will attempt to see the peace talks through to the end and try to continue their peacebuilding projects for as long as politically feasible. But it is only Afghans that can secure the peace once Europe inevitably brings its role to a close.

Samina Ansari has an academic background in law, and international public management. She has worked on Afghanistan’s transition since 2014 through UN, NATO, Aga Khan, and a number of research and rule of law organizations. Ansari is currently based in Kabul, Afghanistan, and can be found on twitter @viasamina. 

Elliott Memmi has an academic background analyzing political communications, social movements, and international politics particularly with regard to Asia and the United States. His most recent research covered the Evolution of Afghan Women’s Rights.