Afghanistan: Can history tell us what to do?

Picture courtesy NL MoD

Afghanistan: Can history tell us what to do?

No, but history can certainly tell us what not to do!

A personal view of Iric A. van Doorn (Vice President Eurodefense Netherlands)
Wassenaar (NL) 18 September 2021


The West, and in particular the USA, has a long history of often violent and usually unsuccessful attempts at regime changes. After the Cold War the US-neo-conservative global strategy was based on US supremacy and exceptionalism and its goal was global control. The act of terrorism of 9/11 was a consequence of the role of the USA in the Middle East; blind support for the State of Israel, the first Gulf war, activating Muslim activists to get the Russians out of Afghanistan and support for dictatorial regimes.

9/11 was utilized to realise US-expansion plans. The military invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq had a tenuous link with “hunting” a group of terrorists. That is a professional job for the police and the “Services”. We now know the consequences: Al Qaida, ISIS have been driven underground and Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria have been in the process destroyed, millions of displaced persons, desperation and hatred and the potential for more terrorism in the whole Middle East region.

And Europe? Our le
ading NATO partner told us to choose: support its “War on Terror” or be against the USA.  Although this had nothing to do with NATO’s Treaty article 5, or with agreed Atlantic Security and Defence policy, a number of NATO-members participated under pressure; each government told their parliament different and convenient reasons for its participation such as: bringing democracy, rebuilding the country, organising national defence capabilities, assistance in fighting crime and terrorism or protecting Europe. What was presented as a unified operation under US leadership turned out to be an aimless adventure costing hundred-thousands of lives and over a trillion wasted dollars. A US president announces long in advance the withdrawal of all US forces. As a result all US-subcontractors start packing, leaving the Afghan army without their support and supplies. Going to war together requires solidarity but retreating on your own and leaving the partners under your umbrella behind without a proper exit strategy is the opposite..

Dien Bien Phu, Saigon, the retreat from Iraq, and from Kabul all look similar: chaos, loss of lives, loss of prestige and influence, betrayal of all those who cooperated and believed in the “good cause”. Did we improve “Human Rights”, Democracy, our global strategic position, our security? But we certainly did improve the position of our adversaries and competitors.

If we want to draw conclusions from history let us start with Von Clausewitz’s: “war is failed diplomacy and in view of its unpredictability it must be considered as the last option of a policy”, but also the Roman adage: if you want peace, be prepared for war. This is even more valid in the nuclear age where the ultimate weapons can not and must not be used.

This was emphasised this week by the news that US, the UK an Australia have agreed on a pact (AUKUS) to control Chinese expansionism. There was no previous consultation with the other NATO partners. To top it all off a contract of strategic importance by Australie with France for the construction of a number of nuclear submarines was cancelled. The US will be the new partner in the project. This is a serious blow to French prestige and the French economy and for the EU as a whole. It underlines once again that the EU for its security and defense must not rely on external partners.

Lessons to be drawn for the EU and its Member States:

  • Do not enter into military adventures without clearly defining your own interests and your values in the expected outcome.
  • Do not subscribe to partners that have a different goal or different interests or that on their own have vital capabilities for the operation.
  • Strive for “Strategic Autonomy” as a long term objective and try to convince all Member States that the EU must have the essential Union-capabilities and Union-capacities to defend itself when need be by an EU-Vanguard Force  and complementary to what the Member States can provide. The “Strategic Compass” will indicate the threats that the EU can expect such as fires and floods due to climate change, diseases, immigration, civil unrest or outside military threats. The  EU must develop the capabilities and the decision making procedures to respond to those threats, on its own if possible; if not, together with allies that listen and do not ignore.
  • Create a controlled stable environment in the regions bordering the EU, repair and restore consultation structures, create transparency and predictability and be determined in your foreign security and defense policy. At the same time credible defense forces will be needed both at the EU level and at the Member State level.
  • The EU will also need to defend itself against global threats that can originate anywhere on the globe and even outside the globe. Misinformation, technological espionage, hybrid threats, supersonic weapons, electronic warfare and even diseases are realistic threats that require continuous research, defensive action and countermeasures.

Whatever the differences between EU Members, in the end the 27 Member States can only meet the global challenges of the future together. Even 27 air-forces are incapable of providing a credible EU air-transport system in an emergency; 27 independent health authorities are not able to effectively fight the next pandemic; 27 ministries of defense cannot provide a rapid response force of 10.000 men in case of a military conflict. 

Continuing our dependence on non-EU partners will further delay the day when the EU can take care of itself. 

History at least tells us what we should not do!


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