TIT ANNUAL The July 14 ritual is an opportunity for the French to display banners, drink champagne and celebrate the founding myths of the republic. On July 14, however, when the French Ambassador to Kabul, David Martinon, recorded a message to his fellow citizens, gravity crushed the party. “My dear compatriots“, he began, “the situation in Afghanistan is extremely worrying”. The French embassy, he said, has completed its evacuation of Afghan employees. French nationals were ordered to leave on a special flight three days later. After that, given the “foreseeable development” of events in Afghanistan, he declared – a month before the fall of Kabul – France could no longer guarantee them a safe exit.
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When the French began withdrawing Afghan personnel and their families in May, even friends accused them of defeatism and precipitating the regime’s downfall. Their August evacuation effort (of 2,834 people, on 42 flights) was flawed and left a few vulnerable Afghans behind. As the allies scrambled to get their Afghan workers out of Kabul, the French found themselves as dependent as anyone on American security. Yet there was a quiet satisfaction in Paris. Their plans showed “impressive foresight,” said Lord Ricketts, former British ambassador to France.
If the French acted early, making their own assessment of shared intelligence, that was in part due to a smaller footprint. France fought in Afghanistan alongside NATO allies from 2001. “We are all Americans”, launched The worldthe front page of after September 11. He then withdrew all of his troops in 2014, in part to focus on his own counterinsurgency efforts in the Sahel. Yet the Kabul decision was also easier to make as the French have less qualms about doing their own thing, even when it annoys America. As Europeans reflect on the troubling implications of the Afghan fiasco and what it says about reliance on a one-sided America, the mood in Britain and Germany is both shocked and hurt. For the French, who learned from the Suez Crisis of 1956 the lesson that they could never fully trust America, a conclusion reinforced under the Obama and Trump presidencies, Afghanistan served to confirm what they suspected for a long time.
It’s no secret that not all Europeans share France’s point of view. When Emmanuel Macron took the stage in the paneled amphitheater of the Sorbonne shortly after his election in 2017 and pleaded for “European sovereignty” and a “capacity to act autonomously” in matters of security if Europe does needed, his voice was alone. In Germany and the east, Mr Macron’s plea was viewed with irritation: yet another pesky Gaullist attempt to undermine NATO and supplant America as the guarantor of European security.
The spirits have moved a little since, since Mr. Macron has sought to reassure his friends that his idea is not to replace but to complete the transatlantic alliance. Even so, just last year, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the German Defense Minister, wrote bluntly that “the illusions of European strategic autonomy must end”. In Britain, meanwhile, Mr Macron’s appeals have been ignored as irrelevant for an island nation newly free to forge its own global role. Pooling European sovereignty over defense was something Brexit was meant to avoid.
The debacle in Afghanistan changed the rhetoric. Tom Tugendhat, a curator deputy who served in Afghanistan, urged Britain “to make sure we don’t depend on a single ally,” naming France and Germany as potential partners. Ben Wallace, the British Secretary of Defense, suggested that his armed forces should be ready to “join different coalitions and not depend on a single nation”. He didn’t need to say which one. “We have all been humiliated in the same way by Americans,” says a British diplomat, who underlines a common interest in making sure this does not happen again. For Germany, timid in conflict, Afghanistan was a formative experience. The disappointment was hurtful. Armin Laschet, the Conservative candidate for German chancellery, described the withdrawal as “the greatest debacle to have NATO has known since its foundation ”.
In short, Europe seems to realize that it will have to do more on its own. Whether skeptics understand it or not, this is exactly what Mr Macron said, and will repeat it in a speech ahead of France’s rotating presidency. EU Advice in 2022. No one, but no one, will say it out loud. But the implicit recognition is that, damn then, Mr. Macron was right.
To arms, Europeans
Two big questions for Europeans, however, arise from this puzzling thought, and there are no easy answers to either. First, what do we really mean by “European sovereignty” or “strategic autonomy” in Europe? Most countries pledge to spend more on defense, although Germany (unlike Britain and France) still falls short of the targets. NATO 2% benchmark GDP. Beyond that, there is little clarity, let alone agreement, not least because Brexit has not put Britain in the mood to work institutionally with the EU.
Should Europeans aspire to a limited management of a regional conflict, such as the Sahel or Iraq? Or do they hope to take charge of the collective defense of their continent? Realists argue for the former, and only up to a point. Amateurs allude to the latter. Yet even in the Sahel, France still needs the Americans for intelligence and logistics. Second, is Europe really ready to do what it takes to get by on its own? The evidence is not convincing. Europe is better at designing acronyms than at developing capabilities. “If we can’t even take care of the Kabul airport, there is a big gap between our analysis and our ability to act,” says Claudia Major of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
The effort involved would be enormous. “I am not sure that Europeans are psychologically ready to take up the challenge,” wrote Gérard Araud, former French Ambassador to America for the Atlantic Council. Mr. Macron, like his ambassador in Kabul, may have made the right choice. But are Europeans ready to take this into account? ■
This article appeared in the Europe section of the paper edition under the title “After Afghanistan”