Mon. Dec 5th, 2022
Source: EEAS

27.08.2022

HR/VP Blog – This Summer has given us plenty of food for thoughts on European defence and its future: from the war against Ukraine, to the serious security deterioration in the Sahel to the one-year anniversary of the Taliban take-over in Afghanistan. We must be ready to face difficult choices and make smarter choices. Doing so together, as Europeans, should enable us to enhance our collective security.

It has been a sobering period for those engaged in ‘stabilisation interventions’ abroad. One year ago, we had the Fall of Kabul and the dramatic withdrawal of US and international forces from Afghanistan. Twenty years, a clear UN mandate, tens of thousands of international troops and more than a trillion dollars had not produced a sustainable and legitimate Afghan government. Strikingly, the last President, Ashraf Ghani, had literally written one of the seminal books on ‘state building’. And still….

Afghanistan may have dropped from the headlines. However, the situation for its people is dire. In the past year, the Taliban have shown no sign of moderation, quite the contrary: all girls, despite earlier promises, are banned from education; huge swathes of the country are gripped by hunger (70% of the population); and many Afghans live in fear or exile. Understandably, no government, not even Pakistan or Qatar, has officially recognised the Taliban. Meanwhile, the Afghan people pay a heavy price for their country’s isolation: humanitarian aid levels are tiny compared to the needs.

Coincidentally, the French government announced that the last French soldier had left Mali on the anniversary of the Fall of Kabul. This departure had become inevitable given the choices of the military Mali government.

The situation is complex, but here too we are forced to acknowledge that trend lines in the region, after more than ten years of international engagement, are poor: terrorism is rife, states are weak and civilian populations are bereft of security and basic services. And this despite all the attention and resources deployed to underpin a G-5 Sahel-led process and a civilian ‘surge’ announced last year.

The Mali government is increasingly turning to the Wagner group. But this move is doomed to fail. It will only exacerbate existing social tensions, deprive the state from valuable resources and will not provide any sustainable response to the security problems of the country, instead increasing the risk of unhealthy dependencies.

From Somalia to Iraq or Libya. Each case is different. But the overwhelming impression is how challenging these operations are; how resource-intensive they have been and, too often, how underwhelming the results

Both the Afghanistan and the Mali experiences point to the inherent difficulties of such external ‘stabilisation operations’. This no surprise really given the historical record of this type of effort – from Somalia to Iraq or Libya. Each case is different when it comes to the mandate, coalition, core objectives, duration, resources etc. But the overwhelming impression is how challenging these operations are; how resource-intensive they have been and, too often, how underwhelming the results.

Outsiders can provide temporary security, or do ‘capacity building’, but only locals can do the politics and make the institutions work.

What are the reasons? There is an extensive literature on why this is the case. One basic reason is that externally driven interventions cannot provide the core necessary ingredient: a viable, legitimate political settlement and government. Only local forces can do this. By their very nature, foreigners are, almost inevitably, seen as ‘the other’, the outsider against whom local forces identify themselves and, eventually, resist. This was true for Napoleon’s armies venturing into Spain who brought ideas ‘on their bayonets’, which were promptly resisted precisely because they were brought by foreigners. Something similar happened to the international coalition in Afghanistan, no matter how good the intentions and no matter the formal mandate agreed in New York. Outsiders can provide temporary security, or do ‘capacity building’, but only locals can do the politics and make the institutions work.

The second problem is unclear goals and ‘mission creep’. It is hard enough to succeed in this type of external interventions but if we are unclear about what the goals are, failure is almost baked-in. In Afghanistan, what started as a limited operation to end the rule of the Taliban who had sheltered Al Qaeda – i.e. a counter-terrorism operation – had morphed into a much broader, more ambitious ‘state building’ operation, to build a broad-based, accountable Afghan government that would make a quantum leap and uphold civil liberties. On the first goal, the operation succeeded, already in 2001; on the second, it did not. Indeed, outsiders bringing sophisticated equipment and their own cultural values were unable to ‘short circuit’ history and deliver a government that somehow respects international norms but also fits local, cultural conditions.

Often the so-called ‘international community’ relies heavily on elites based in capitals, ideally English-speaking and Western-educated. But real power mostly lies with groups of tribes, mayors and militia leaders.

Third and related: we need to look closer at the interests and motives of local actors and forces. Often the so-called ‘international community’ relies heavily on elites based in capitals, ideally English-speaking and Western-educated. But real power mostly lies with groups of tribes, mayors and militia leaders. In fragmented societies, people’s loyalty is not necessarily towards the central government in which they have no stake. Members of the security services are unlikely to want to risk their lives for a state-building project that they do not buy into.

Is all this a reason to simply give up and conclude that we better just stay at home? No. Because here is the core dilemma of foreign policy. As former EU diplomat Robert Cooper said: ‘you may not be interested in chaos, but chaos is interested in you.’ We cannot provide for functioning politics, but the absence rebounds on us. We may withdraw, but the consequences of doing so may mean more instability, more terrorism, more migration etc. In addition, we have the basic, human urge to want to help people in need, showing solidarity. That is why isolationism will not work either.

We must internalise the lesson that crisis management is about creating the space for functional politics to work. ‘Local ownership’ is a terrible cliché but one we too often overlook.

What perhaps could work is an approach that is more selective in what interventions to undertake but, once chosen, commits the right resources and allows enough time to see it through. Above all, we must internalise the lesson that crisis management is about creating the space for functional politics to work. ‘Local ownership’ is a terrible cliché but one we too often overlook.

The role of EU armies

All this matters per se but it should also be situated in the context of the debate on the future of European armed forces. The basic focus for European armies in the past 20 years has been ‘expeditionary operations’, precisely like those in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Sahel. During this time, there have been a set of steep and uncoordinated cuts in defence budgets across Europe (only partially reversed in recent years), precisely when US, China, Russia and others have increased theirs massively (Europe +20%, Russia + 300% and China + 600%). So the relative gap between European countries and others has widened dramatically. As I have argued repeatedly, this is something we must urgently address.

European armies have been ‘hollowed out’ and been described as ‘bonsai armies’: they look like the real thing but have shrunk into miniature versions.

The rise of China as a major military player – going well beyond the economic dimension that most of us were focused on – is particularly striking: its navy now has more surface ships than the US navy. In addition, we have seen this Summer, around Taiwan, how China is ready to use its armed forces to send clear signals.

European armies have been ‘hollowed out’ and been described as ‘bonsai armies’: they look like the real thing but have shrunk into miniature versions. To give an example, in his testimony before the Defence Committee of the French Assemblée Nationale on 13 July, the French Chief of Defence General Burkard openly questioned whether the combination of the focus on expeditionary and asymmetric warfare plus budget cuts have put into question the French army’s ability to wage a ‘high intensity’ conflict on European soil.

He went on to say that since 1945, the French navy has never been as small as now: the number of ships has been cut in half since 1990. Since 1996, the French air force has cut the number of planes by 30%. Big gaps also exist for the army, notably on artillery and munitions (stocks are depleted because of supplies to Ukraine). All this in one of the EU member states that takes its defence role very seriously – the situation is worse in Germany, Italy, Spain etc..

The question is what to do. What type of conflicts do we prepare our armies for and what sort of decisions flow from that in terms of posture, budgets, training etc.? We cannot continue to face a more threatening strategic landscape including opponents using high intensity warfare with ‘bonsai armies’. At the same time, we cannot pretend to be satisfied with our record of expeditionary warfare.

All this calls for a readiness to think deep and hard about the choices and trade-offs we face and decide accordingly. The real point is to do this reflection together, as Europeans.

Our armies need to be able to handle both territorial defence and asymmetric war further afield. We need to do that in the framework of NATO, indeed, and almost all EU member states are now members. But we also need to be able to rely more on ourselves and demonstrate our strategic responsibility when our security interests are at stake at our borders and beyond. This is why EU member states need to invest better and together and cooperate much more on defence.

All this calls for a readiness to think deep and hard about the choices and trade-offs we face and decide accordingly. The real point is to do this reflection together, as Europeans. The raft of proposals we have adopted under the Strategic Compass go a long way to enhance our collective impact, if fully implemented.

If we share lessons learned, we can avoid costly mistakes. If we pool resources, we can get more results. If we coordinate among us, we can do task specialisation.

Or we can fool ourselves and continue on autopilot, ignoring the changes in the world around us.

Josep Borrell, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy / Vice-President of the European Commission

Source – EEAS

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