Author: Jahangir HUSEYNOV
Poorly organised withdrawal of Western troops from Afghanistan, the hasty escape of the Afghan government, the rapid seizure of the country by the Taliban, and the chaotic evacuation of European citizens and their Afghan allies have challenged the EU to set up its own rapid deployment forces. This is the opinion of the high-ranking EU officials.
“Can Europe, as a solid global economic and democratic power, be satisfied with a situation when we are unable to ensure the protection of our citizens and those who are at risk because they helped us without external assistance?” asks President of the European Council Charles Michel.
“Afghanistan has demonstrated that if we want to be able to act autonomously and not depend on the choices of others, even if they are our friends and allies, then we must develop our own potential,” EU Foreign Minister Josep Borrell said.
Indeed, the events in Afghanistan made a heavy impression on the leaders of Europe. European countries had no choice but to leave Afghanistan along with the US, despite their desire to stay and prevent the country from falling into the hands of the Taliban. Washington's allies from NATO depended on the US logistics and air support for their military operations in Afghanistan and the safe evacuation of their citizens.
Feeling of hopelessness over Afghanistan in the EU capitals was especially strong because the 6,000-strong US military group that ensured the security of the Kabul airport was equal in size to the combined EU military forces formed back in 2007, but never used.
Rapid deployment forces
In early September, immediately after the evacuation from Kabul, EU defense ministers began to discuss how to better respond to future crises. One of the ideas was to create a rapid deployment force (RDF) of 5,000 people capable of quickly deploying in active conflict zones around the world. But the idea was not something new.
Discussions in Europe about the creation of European army have been going on since 1940s, from the first attempts to create an alliance of European states. However, all these discussions so far have not led to any serious results.
In 2007, the EU did create combat groups of 1,500 troopers to respond to crises, but they have never been deployed. Not because there was no need, but the European countries simply do not have a common position on the funding and use of these groups.
This time too, the next proposal to create RDF was not met with enthusiasm, for example, by Sweden, where public opinion is increasingly inclined to join NATO, as well as by the Baltic states and Poland, which are wary of any European defense initiative that would exclude the US.
Until recently, Germany also preferred NATO to remain the cornerstone of European defense. But now, it seems, the country is more inclined towards European autonomy in this matter as well, albeit in a slightly different form, which can be defined as a “coalition of volunteers”.
The problem with the united armed forces is that any operations involving them require unanimity among the 27 EU countries, which is very difficult to achieve. And it takes too much time for discussions and agreements to call the use of these forces a ‘rapid response’.
Interestingly, the total size of the European armed forces is greater than that of Russia or the US, but most of them are unsuitable for deployment abroad. Their equipment is outdated or incompatible and in many cases there is duplication of functions. The EU includes 27 states, which means there are 27 general staffs. Plus 20 military academies that do not coordinate their programs.
Meanwhile, German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer supported the idea of “coalitions of volunteer states” united to solve specific problems. In this case, a simple majority will be required, not a unanimous decision.
Moreover, military cooperation outside the EU has long been practised quite successfully. For example, Britain and France are partners in a joint expeditionary force, a 10,000-man battle group. Since the deployment of national armies of these countries requires only the decision of the political leadership of these countries, Britain and France can deploy joint forces within 48 hours.
In Germany, this is a little more complicated. It requires a parliamentary decision. But last month Germany signed an intergovernmental agreement with France on cooperation in tactical air transport. According to the document, a joint squadron will be deployed at the Evreux airbase in France.
In 2010, Belgium, France, Germany, and the Netherlands established the European Transport Aviation Command at Eindhoven Air Force Base. There are other examples of military cooperation outside the EU control.
In fact, European military has little independent combat experience. Until now, the EU's main military niche has been small missions that require a combination of political weight, economic know-how and sometimes military capabilities. For example, police training in the Balkans, border security consultancy in Georgia, or officer training in Uganda.
Among independent military operations, we can only state the participation in conflicts in Libya, Mali, Congo, Chad and the Central African Republic. Even there, it took weeks, if not months, to deploy military units, which also required broad American support.
Relations with NATO
Europe has traditionally relied on NATO for defense, avoiding military spending. It sometimes reached the point of absurdity when the armed forces of Germany, the world's fifth economy, were so underfunded that they used brooms instead of weapons during NATO exercises. As a result, Washington was forced to demand from European countries to increase spending on their own security.
Donald Trump's ‘America First’ policy, as well as Russia's annex of Crimea forced Brussels to come to grips with developing its own defense policy.
Brexit has brought greater urgency to the EU's defense ambitions, as it can no longer rely on London for military matters. In addition, Brussels was now free from the restrictions that the British governments had imposed on the development of EU’s defense potential.
After the events in Afghanistan, an increasing number of European states began to realise the urgency of having their own military doctrine. In particular, French President Emmanuel Macron and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte issued a joint statement in which they called on the EU to develop ‘strategic autonomy’ and take ‘more responsibility for its security and defense’.
“We must strengthen Europe so that we never leave it to the discretion of the Americans,” agrees with them Armin Laschet, who replaced Angela Merkel as chairman of the CDU and is expected to be the next German chancellor.
Obviously, Washington sensed a dangerous change in moods in Europe.
It is no coincidence that NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, noting that he supports the plans of the EU to form a common defense policy, nevertheless considered it necessary to warn Brussels against any RDF that could duplicate allied operations.
Thanks to its economic power and with only limited foreign military missions, Europe has for many years only been able to use ‘soft power’ to spread its influence through trade and humanitarian aid. However, in the context of the ever-growing global rivalry between the US and China, as well as the increasing hotbeds of instability along the perimeter of its borders, the EU considers it necessary to achieve military and technological independence.
EU is currently developing a Strategic Security and Defense Compass, which should be ready by March 2022. The objective is to assess the main threats and challenges for the EU and define goals and objectives, as well as tools to respond to them.
So far, the search for a comprehensive common military strategy for the EU has not been successful due to diverging security priorities. For example, the Central European countries, primarily France, focus on conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, while Russia is considered a key threat to Eastern Europe.
Whatever the Strategic Compass ultimately may be, the main thing is that in an attempt to satisfy an ambition to play a more important role on the world stage, the EU can achieve transparency in its defense doctrine. This will increase trust in the union from its neighbours and partners.