BRUSSELS — Stung by the swift collapse of the Afghan army and the chaotic U.S.-led evacuation through Kabul airport, the European Union on Wednesday unveiled new plans to develop its own defense capacities to try to ensure that it has more freedom to act in future crises.
More than 100,000 people were evacuated in the frenzied final days of the U.S. airlift after President Joe Biden said American troops would leave, forcing the hands of EU countries incapable of facing the Taliban alone. Many thousands of Afghans remain, desperate to escape the uncertainty of Taliban rule.
The scenes of chaos included Afghans plunging to their deaths from the sides of military aircraft on takeoff and a suicide bombing that killed 169 Afghans and 13 U.S. personnel and encapsulated the end of a two-decade war led by Washington with financial, political and security support from the Europeans.
In a self-styled State of the European Union address, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that the failure of the government and security forces in Kabul and their fall to Taliban insurgents in a matter of days raises troubling questions for the 27-nation bloc, but also for NATO.
“Witnessing events unfold in Afghanistan was profoundly painful for all the families of fallen servicemen and servicewomen,” von der Leyen told EU lawmakers. “To make sure that their service will never be in vain, we have to reflect on how this mission could end so abruptly.”
“There are deeply troubling questions that allies will have to tackle within NATO,” the former German defense minister said. But she conceded that cooperation with NATO, where the U.S. is by far the most powerful and influential member, must also remain a priority.
Still, von der Leyen said at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, that “Europe can – and clearly should – be able and willing to do more on its own,” and she insisted that “It is time for Europe to step up to the next level.”
Earlier this month, EU ministers debated creating a standby EU force of around 5,000 troops to deploy in crises like the one at Kabul airport. The plan faces opposition from some of the 22 EU countries that are also members of NATO, notably countries bordering Russia comforted by U.S. security assurances.
The idea is not particularly new. The EU has a system of battlegroups to deploy to hot spots but they’ve never been used, and the Europeans are generally reluctant to send their troops to active conflict zones.
“What has held us back until now is not just a shortfall of capacity — it is the lack of political will,” von der Leyen said. “If we develop this political will, there is a lot that we can do at EU level.”
She said the EU must lay the foundations for better collective decision-making and intelligence sharing, improve the interoperability of the 27 member countries’ military equipment, and invest in common projects like fighter jets, drones and cyber capacities.
The EU’s chief executive proposed a waiver on value added tax for defense equipment developed and produced in Europe, which could help wean the bloc off its dependence on U.S. gear.
Von der Leyen said that she and French President Emmanuel Macron, who has long-called for more EU defense autonomy, notably during the turmoil of the Trump administration, will convene a summit on European defense when France takes over the bloc’s rotating presidency in the first half of 2022.