A US marine stands next to an Afghan National Army soldier during a training exercise in Helmand province on July 5, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Omar Sobhani
A US marine stands next to an Afghan National Army soldier during a training exercise in Helmand province on July 5, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Omar Sobhani

On Monday, the European Union set out proposals on how to help Afghanistan improve its delicate security condition and fragile economy. The EU strategy centers on the “Afghanization” of the peace process and support for capacity-building policies, marking a significant shift from the position of the United States under President Donald Trump. Washington instead is considering a new military surge to try to win its long war on Islamist terror in the Asian country – or at least not to lose it.

Afghanistan is currently a failed state. Its government institutions and economic infrastructure are dysfunctional. More important, its security environment continues to deteriorate. After their ousting from power at the hand of US-led forces in 2001, the Taliban are now on the offensive. At the same time, al-Qaeda has been degraded but not completely eliminated, and Islamic State-affiliated groups have been established on Afghan soil.

Threat to EU security

The EU is Kabul’s largest development-cooperation partner. At the October 2016 Conference on Afghanistan in Brussels, the European bloc pledged US$5.9 billion for the war-torn nation’s development out of an overall commitment from international donors of $15.9 billion through 2020.

Afghanistan’s instability has a negative impact on the security of the EU and its member states, which have been the target of terrorist attacks in the past few years. In the current situation, the Afghan territory remains a sanctuary for Islamist terrorist organizations that could potentially hit European countries.

The EU also fears a new wave of Afghan refugees, as mass migration from North Africa and the Middle East is already undermining European political and social cohesion.

Afghans were the second-largest group of irregular migrants into the EU space both in 2015 and 2016. Humanitarian organizations have criticized Brussels for repatriations of Afghan migrants under the Joint Way Forward deal, which the European bloc and Kabul signed last year. Human-rights advocates say the reintegration of returning Afghan nationals from Europe is not sustainable at a time when the security scenario in their country of origin is still uncertain.

There is the problem of the opium trade, as well. Opium is the main ingredient in heroin, and Afghanistan is Europe’s main supplier of this drug. The total area of opium-poppy cultivation in the Asian nation increased by 10% in 2016 compared with the previous year, while production saw a 43% increase. The value of the illicit opiate economy was estimated at $3 billion last year, twice as much as in 2015, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported in May.

What’s more, the opium business fuels the Taliban guerrilla movement, given that Islamist insurgents impose taxes on poppy production in areas they control. The commander of the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission and US forces in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, estimates that the Taliban source 60% of their funds from the opium trade.

Conflict resolution, capacity-building

The EU proposes that an “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned” peace and reconstruction process be launched with the consensus of key state actors in the region. Kabul’s “empowerment” should be matched by the reinforcement of the Afghan civil and military institutions, but also of the country’s social fabric, including the promotion of gender equality. Further, economic programs should be revised and focused on rural development and infrastructure connectivity.

However, the idea of encouraging consensus among all relevant stakeholders for a peace and development initiative steered by the Afghan government could fall short of expectations. The country’s pacification cannot be reached if the geopolitical scenario in South Asia does not change, particularly if India and Pakistan do not come to terms on their border disputes and, more generally, on their co-existence.

Furthermore, the international community’s efforts on capacity-building in Afghanistan have so far proved ineffective. Funds and resources provided by foreign donors have often been wasted because of the corruption and ineptitude of Afghan political and administrative institutions.

To try to deal with this problem, the EU could pursue a paradigm shift in its approach and directly work with local communities, at least in areas that are under government control – around 60% of Afghan territory, according to the US command in Afghanistan.

US military surge

But the main obstacle to the EU’s incremental strategy for the Afghan conflict could be the Trump administration and its possible increase of US troops in Afghanistan. The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, said last week that the deployment of additional troops in Afghanistan would strengthen local conventional forces in their fight against the insurgents.

Dunford added that the United States needed Pakistan’s cooperation to win the war in Afghanistan and that the possible increase of the US military presence in the country was being assessed within a broader strategy for South Asia.

In light of Washington’s apparent military-oriented policy, it is doubtful that the EU will manage to advance its Afghanistan agenda based on conflict resolution and state-building. American bullets will indeed fly  faster than European political suggestions.

Emanuele Scimia

Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and foreign policy analyst. He has written for Asia Times since 2011. His articles have also appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, The National Interest, Deutsche Welle, World Politics Review and The Jerusalem Post, among others.