Blog AnalysisAsiaCivil protection

First Lessons from the 'Kabul Crisis' (v2)

(B2) After the somewhat hasty evacuation of the Afghan capital due to the rapid advance of the Taliban, we can draw some immediate lessons from the European reaction. In terms of crisis anticipation, tactical and political coordination, imperfections remain, and which must be corrected

A fully loaded German A400M departing from Kabul (© Bundeswehr)
  • Points that EU Defense Ministers will be able to discuss at their leisure, who will meet from this evening in Ljubljana, the Slovenian capital, for their traditional informal back-to-school meeting (at the invitation of the Slovenian Presidency of the Union). )

Operational coordination to be consolidated

Europeans do not have to be ashamed of the number of people evacuated by their planes. Around 24.000 people according to the latest B2 count, to which we can add the 15.000 insured by the United Kingdom (or 40.000 in total). Even if the environment on site was “ chaotic », bring to safety and repatriate so many people in record time, it is a undeniable success. But coordination upstream and downstream, between Europeans, still needs to be improved.

Lots of planes...

The Europeans mobilized as many planes as the Americans: around thirty tactical planes and around ten strategic planes, according to our count. In addition, civil planes mobilized for the occasion (companies LOT, Air Europa, Air Belgium, etc.). But that only represents a fifth of the total evacuees. The others were essentially evacuated by US forces.

Three factors temper this comparison. 1° The Europeans generally had smaller planes (the C-130 or A400M carry fewer people than a C-17 (except the planes pooled at the NATO level at the Papa base). 2° They also had a lower number of people to evacuate 3° And, above all, it was the Americans who had control of air coordination and security at the airport. But that does not exempt us from asking the question of this absence. efficiency.

...a lower utilization ratio than the USA

If the Germans, for example, refueled their A400Ms, other countries left half full, or even almost empty. Like this Romanian plane with an evacuee on board! (read our detailed story: Run for your life. An airlift is organized to evacuate European nationals and Afghan employees from Kabul). Fortunately, the situation was more or less under control and the evacuation phase was finally able to last almost two weeks; in another scenario, such inorganization would have been dramatic.

We go national, then we coordinate

Each country left with its national means and to the places where it had a certain knowledge of the places. Without any consultation. A European particularity, EU member states have not succeeded – with a few rare exceptions – in setting up common hubs. Between the number of military planes which landed in Kabul and the strategic flights for Europe, there was therefore very little possibility of pooling flights once the 'evacuees' had left the risk zone. Nonsense.

Too many hubs

We have thus counted no less than seven hubs for Europeans. Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates) for the French; Tashkent (Uzbekistan) for the Germans and Navoi (Uzbekistan) for the Poles; Islamabad (Pakistan) for Belgians, Luxembourgers, Dutch and Romanians; Kuwait for the Italians; Dubai for the Spanish; Tbilisi (Georgia) for Poles and Dutch. (NB: which does not facilitate synergies, particularly for strategic repatriations for Europe). It's a lot. Too much ! To review…

A European reflex to consolidate

The European reflex is not yet fully in place. Some countries played the European card a lot, evacuating their nationals on behalf of other countries or organizations (Germans in particular, but also Belgians or Spaniards). Others played a fairly national card (France). This big improvised bazaar was only a success thanks to the involvement of staff on site or in the capitals who 'played the telephone' to coordinate (and thanks to the Americans). This demonstrates the need for more appropriate 'consular' coordination: from capitals to the field.

Political coordination still timid

The European political level reacted rather quickly with a meeting on August 17 of EU foreign affairs ministers (followed on August 18 by interior ministers). But none of the defense ministers. The IPCR consular coordination system has not worked very well according to some experts. In any case, less well than during the Covid-19 crisis (for the repatriation of Europeans at the height of the health crisis in spring 2020). There is no shortage of 'war rooms' at European level. Each institution has one (civil protection at the Commission, EU headquarters at the EEAS, consular at the Council). But there is no situation room designed to manage a civil-military crisis. And the political level still remains defective, quicker to bring together and declaim than to decide and manage.

The failure of NATO

In this quick panorama, the surprise came from 'Bd Leopold'. The Atlantic Alliance, although at the forefront of military engagement in Afghanistan (ISAF, Resolute Support), was caught from behind. The meeting of NATO foreign ministers did not take place until August 20, a week after the start of the evacuation decisions. And three days after an equivalent EU meeting! (read : Afghanistan. Worried NATO foreign ministers beg US to stay longer). No meeting of defense ministers. A real air gap. The organization appears knocked out, first of all by the disarray of the army that it supported and trained for nearly twenty years. NATO-style 'nation building' has failed. The doctrine of external intervention is undermined. The organization may have to refocus on its primary function: the territorial defense of the Euro-Atlantic zone. As for the American lone rider, he brings the Alliance back to what it is: an organization built in Washington. NATO has not yet really found its balance, and its second pillar of stability!

Strategic autonomy to develop

This crisis shows, directly, that the search for a certain strategic autonomy is not just a political fad. It is a practical necessity.

Preparing to handle a crisis alone

If tomorrow, another crisis presents itself in an area where the Americans are disinterested or do not want to get involved, will the Europeans be able to do the job that the US forces did in Kabul? The establishment of air coordination could be improved upstream, by relying on an expanded EATC or a European CAOC and following the best practices (1). The idea of ​​a first entry force cannot remain the subject of political questioning forever. No need for a large number. The figure of 5000 soldiers is more than sufficient (as shown by the US commitment).

Better anticipation

Common anticipation of the crisis was not perfectly clear-sighted. Not automatically for lack of information. But for lack of real analysis and political consequences. France had, however, warned - in a vision then considered pessimistic - of Afghan weaknesses and set up a first evacuation movement, from July onwards, of its nationals. Wasn't the message clear enough, not audible? In fact, the other Europeans (the majority) preferred to procrastinate, waiting for the American signal. They also became self-intoxicated about the value of their Afghan protégés. A double error... Here again the Europeans must learn to do without the Americans, by creating their own 'Five Eyes' (2)

Emergency evacuations : a textbook case for Europeans

This is the most obvious (and easiest) option for Member States to take action on. This is not a possibility, it is an obligation, under strong pressure from public opinion. In such a situation, States are under great pressure. We saw it in this crisis. Countries with a parliamentary tradition thus very quickly mobilized their parliamentarians to obtain approval for the sending of troops (Finland), or even anticipated their opinions (Germany). And it is likely to recur regularly, for very different causes (coup d'état, natural disaster, etc.). Europeans would do well to prepare themselves better.

The end of the honeymoon with Biden

This is the main lesson on a political level. Since the arrival of Joe Biden as president of the United States, Europeans have been very attentive to their guest at the White House. Reassured to see their bete noire, Donald Trump, leave power, they saw in the Democrat their lifeline to their various inabilities. The disenchantment is clear. Joe Biden, like his predecessor, has not really consulted or interacted with his allies. The USA set the tempo. And the Europeans had to follow. By grumbling sometimes (in a criticism bordering on bad faith), but without the possibility of acting differently (or without daring to do so). Broken hearted by a reunion that has barely begun, Europeans will have to face reality: the time when they could rely 100% on American brains, shoulders and legs is over.

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)

  1. The European Air Transport Command (EATC) in Eindhoven coordinates the resources of half a dozen European countries (France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Benelux). Coalition Air Operations Command (CAOC) plans, conducts and schedules combined air operations. For Afghanistan, he was based in Qatar on the Al Udeid base under American responsibility.
  2. This term covers the community for exchanging information and analyzes set up between the USA, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Completed on the NATO part and the refocusing on the Euro-Atlantic area

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).

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