European Union External Action

Afghanistan: Press remarks by the High Representative Josep Borrell after extraordinary videoconference of the EU Foreign Ministers

Brussels, 17/08/2021 - 21:30, UNIQUE ID: 210817_10
Remarks

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Thank you for organising this press conference and thank you to all of you for attending it.

These days - I do not know how many, but very few - from last Saturday, there has been very intensive work and, most of the time, silent work in order to prepare this extraordinary meeting of the [European Union] Foreign Affairs Ministers. The purpose was to make a first assessment and discuss the European Union’s approach to the new situation in Afghanistan.

Since last Sunday, there is a new political dynamic in Afghanistan created by the political and military control of the country by the Taliban. And this has happened even before the final date for the United States troop’s withdrawal, which was scheduled for the 31st of August.

This new reality comes 20 years after the beginning of the military operation launched by the United States with the support of NATO in October 2001.

It is necessary for us to assess the consequences of this long commitment. This commitment was initially guided by the need to fight Al-Qaeda, responsible for the attacks of September 11 [2001]. The Western commitment was to destroy Al-Qaeda, but this commitment gradually shifted to the construction of a modern state, shifted to a nation-building purpose  to be able to guarantee freedoms and fundamental rights of the human persons, especially women and girls. Today, 20 years later, we can say that the first part of the mission succeeded and the second [did] not.

We have to ask ourselves – and this meeting with my colleagues, the Foreign Affairs Ministers, has been the first occasion to do so – about the consequences of an operation of nation-building conducted with an unprecedented amount of resources, but which achieved very modest results in regard to the limited resilience of the Afghan state and the Afghan army. And I think that all over the world, similar operations will lead to similar results as long as the nation-building process does not appear as something home-grown, something where people participate and [are] empowered.

This meeting has been a good occasion to discuss about all that.

Over the last few days, I was in touch – in order to prepare this meeting -  with a number of partners, including the Secretary General of NATO, [Jens] Stoltenberg, and the United States State Secretary, [Antony] Blinken, in order to know which was the situation on the ground.

The situation on the ground is very fluid. It is becoming, at certain moments, dangerous for the people who have been working [with and for us] and supporting our work, Afghan people. And the main conclusion of this meeting has been that the first objective, the priority, is to ensure the evacuation in the best conditions of security of the European nationals still present in the country and, also, of the Afghan citizens who worked with us for more than 20 years, if they want to leave the country. We cannot abandon them and we will do – we are doing – everything we can in order to bring them and to offer them shelter in the European Union Member States.

On doing that, I want to thank Spain, for being ready to provide a hub to receive these people and, later, to be disseminated among the different Member States that offer them visas. I also want to thank Italy for offering Air Bridge facilities and France for providing military security on the ground. And all Member States for allowing the visa required for almost 400 people and their families, who have been working to support our Delegation and our missions in Afghanistan.

The work is in process. We are very much aware of the difficulties. I coordinated yesterday with Secretary of State [of the United States, Antony] Blinken, I informed my colleagues today and our engagement is to continue working in order to do everything we can in order to take these people out of Afghanistan. But not only them, also a lot of people from the civil society, journalists, intellectuals and media who can also be afraid of the new situation.

Second, we have to ensure that the new political situation created in Afghanistan by the return of the Taliban does not lead to a large-scale migratory movement towards Europe. We need to coordinate between the European Union Member States and transit countries. It will be high on our agenda and we will have to support the transit and neighbouring countries of Afghanistan.

Third, we will have to get in touch with authorities in Kabul – the authorities in Kabul, whoever they are, the Taliban have won the war, so we will have to talk with them - in order to engage in a dialogue as soon as necessary to prevent a humanitarian and a potential migratory disaster, but also a humanitarian crisis. This dialogue will also have to focus on the means to prevent the return of foreign terrorist presence in Afghanistan. Something that, certainly, is also very high on our agenda.

We will deal with the Afghan authorities such as they are. At the same time remaining naturally vigilant on the respect of international obligations accepted by the different Afghan governments for more than 50 years. And, certainly, very high in our concern, is the situation of women and girls, the rights of the human beings, but especially of women and girls.

We have to organise a safe and orderly departure of foreign nationals and of Afghans. For that, the functioning of Kabul airport is crucial, as well as to ensure the way that these people can reach the airport.

We have to call on the Taliban to respect their commitments when it comes to civilians, to their properties. Humanitarian support will continue being available.

We are afraid of the dire situation in which the Afghan people can be in the following months if there is a climate situation that will be very bad for the production of food. And the humanitarian support will also be present.

This is, more or less, what I have to say about what we have discussed today. There are many lessons to take about what has happened. We have to recognise that mistakes have been made, especially about the evaluation of the military capacity of the Afghan army to resist the Taliban offensive. Everybody has been surprised by the fall, in few days, of an army on which we have spent a lot of money and a lot of efforts to train tens of thousands of soldiers. I think that even the Taliban have been surprised by their victory. This victory has been preceded by a terror campaign of selective killing of the framework of people: the intellectuals, the journalists, the military, the women, the leaders, in order to create an atmosphere of terror that has certainly helped to the fall down of the military capacity of the Afghan government. But now, it is time to face the future, to learn from the past, and to face the situation with the objectives that I have already mentioned. 

 

Link to the video: https://audiovisual.ec.europa.eu/en/video/I-209872

 

Q&A

Q. Couple of questions if I may on the situation on the ground, how quickly we will be able to get the local Afghan staff and their families the four hundred people out of Kabul? Do you know where they all are? Do you have any numbers or a number on EU nationals that are still in Kabul? And then a political question if I may. You said that the Taliban won the war and we will have to deal with that. Does that mean that you believe or the Member State believe that we will have to recognize a Taliban government or will there be conditions on that recognition?

It is not a matter of official recognition it is a matter of dealing with, if we want almost four hundred people, Afghans and their families, who have been working for us, for the EU Delegation, to reach the airport, you can understand that I will need to talk to Taliban authorities. If not, it would be quite difficult for them to freely reach the airport. It is going to be quite complicated logistical operation. So, we have to engage with them and at the same time remain very vigilant on the respect of the international obligations accepted by different Afghan governments over the last fifty years and this includes for sure all the conditionalities and respect to all the resolutions of the UN Security Council. About the number of EU nationals. I do not have a precise figure to offer because it depends whether you count diplomatic services, you count people who work in NGOs, people on different missions. I do not know, I do not have a precise figure. I wonder if I would have this figure in mind, if it would be prudent to tell it openly. But what worries me it is the Afghan people who had been working with us. I can give you an estimated figure of the people who had been working for the European institutions and their relatives. We estimate about three hundred and eighty, four hundred maximum. Spain has offered to be a hub, in order to receive all these people and from Spain they will be afterwards send to countries offering visas and shelter, because they cannot go directly from Kabul to all the twenty seven capitals. This is the most important concern for me, I have been working on that and will continue working on it in following days.

 

Q. Good evening, my question is on funding, and it is twofold. Since the EU is the biggest international donor for the Afghan government, or at least one of the biggest. At this point, are there any payments going out of which the new authorities might profit? The second question is in the midterm, what should happen to this 1.2 bill. dollars to which the EU committed last year and which were explicitly linked to democracy, rule of law, human rights and gender equality? Has this been discussed today? Is there emerging consensus of Ministers on how to deal with that? Whether these thresholds needs be lowered, or if the Taliban does not adapt to that, will they end up with no money?

To the second question, you have to make a clear difference between humanitarian help and development assistance. They are two different things, humanitarian help is needed whatever the political circumstances are, and people in Afghanistan will need a lot of humanitarian help. As I said, Afghanistan is being threatened by the climate change and the atmospheric situation will for sure diminish the crops and if the Taliban take [..inaudible…] from working, for sure there will be less output on the fields. So the humanitarian help is something that has to be maintained and even increased. Depending on the needs. Another thing and completely different thing is the development help, which is not directly linked with the humanitarian needs and on that we will see. This is conditionality, there are conditionalities. No payments are going on to Afghanistan by now. No payments of development assistance until we clarify the situation. We have always said that this help will be according with the fulfilment of the conditions and this remains. We will have to see first what kind of government is Taliban going to form. But make a difference please humanitarian help and development assistance. Humanitarian help will continue and maybe it will have to be increased and we are there to help Afghan people. And the first question, sorry I was so much concentrated on the second one. Can you please repeat the first question?

 

Q. In fact you have answered both questions, but I was interested in knowing whether there is an emerging consensus among Member States about what we need to expect of the next Afghan government. What are the conditions not just for recognition, but for further support? Did you discuss that?

Yes, well, the meeting has lasted just two hours and we will continue discussing in the next Gymnich. But we insisted on the line that we have always said: conditionality related to the respect to the human rights and the UN Security Council Resolutions, we do not have to invent anything, it is there. UNSC Resolutions and Human rights, depending on the respect to these principles, we will use our leverage from the point of view of the development aid and partnership. Once again, I want to make a difference with the humanitarian help. And yet, you have been talking about it and at the time no payments are going to be on the side of the development aid from the EU, but you know, the Member States have their own policy and in the case of Ethiopia, I do not need to remind it, we decided to stop our development aid, and not all Member States decided to do the same thing. But in the case of Afghanistan, I think, I suppose, I want, I expect, I hope, that we will be acting in a more coordinated way.

 

Q. I have a question on the geopolitical implications of all this, whether you are concerned that the outcome would be that China would have a stronger role in that part of Asia. The second question is that I do not know whether during the VTC you had the chance to watch the presser of the Taliban. It was an hour-long presser and they tried to describe themselves as more moderate, as different from the Taliban of 20 years ago. My question is: are you already in touch with the Taliban? Are you discussing with them? Do you think that it is credible that Taliban of today are different from the Taliban of 20 years ago?

First, these developments for sure they are going to have a wide-ranging impact on regional and international security. That is why we had to work closely with the United States. But, at the same time, I think that what has happened shows that Europe needs to develop this famous strategic autonomy, in order to be ready to face challenges that affect us eventually.

We have to cooperate strongly with the United States and we have to be more active with partners in the region. Notably with Central Asian countries, which suddenly appear as geostrategic. I was in Tashkent some weeks ago; I had the opportunity to talk with the President of Afghanistan [Ashraf Ghani] and also the Prime Minister of Pakistan [Imran Khan]. These countries will become strategic for us. But also with key actors, not least Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, India, China and Russia. Our engagement with these countries will have to increase and it will be equally important to maintain the situation under the purview of the United Nations Security Council. But certainly this is the most important geopolitical event that has happened since Crimea was taken by Russia. And it will have an impact on the geopolitical balance of the world. Some Member States have been very crude in describing what has happened there and the consequences for the Western world.

 

Q. The second question was on the Taliban, because they now try to present themselves as different from the past and I was wondering whether you believe that there is any difference between the current Taliban and the ones from 20 years ago. And whether you are in touch with them already or not.

What has happened, has happened in the last three or four days. You can believe that I have not had time to get in touch with the Taliban. Personally certainly not. We have a Head of Delegation there [in Kabul], he is still at the airport and I am going to send there – I would not call it a mission - but a reinforcement of our Delegation, not only to take people out, but to send people in, in order to be able to pursue a dialogue with the Taliban for practical matters.

As I said, to take 400 people from their houses to the airport in order to pick up several planes leaving at several moments in different groups, is a logistic operation that cannot be implemented without some kind of agreement with the Taliban as you can understand. So we have to be in touch with the Taliban. If they are different or not, apparently they look the same, but they speak better English.

 

Q. The security situation in Afghanistan is really something unacceptable. I do not understand why always the Western countries and the European Union try to make the same mistakes. I do not understand why the European Union is always trying to follow the same wrong policy of President Trump that came to Afghanistan and destroyed the country. I do not understand where is the specific and special policy from the Europe Union for Afghanistan. As a woman, I see the country, and especially the women there, in a very wrong and tough situation. During 20 years the European Union put a lot of things in our country and you are bringing us back again to same way we were in 1996. I do not understand why and I suggest and I beg you not to recognise the Taliban without any condition…

I share your feelings and your concern. I have not said that we are going to recognise the Taliban. I have just said that we have to talk with them about everything, even to try to protect women and girls. Even for that, we have to get in touch with them.

I have not said that we are going to accept the Taliban whatever they do. I have said that we will put conditions for continuing our support and we are going to use our leverage, all our leverage to make human rights to be respected.

I know that when I am saying that it looks a little bit [like] a wishful thinking, but we will use all our leverage.

You know, it is not the European Union who decided to leave Afghanistan. It is not the European Union nor the Member States. It has been a decision of [former] President [of the United States, Donald] Trump, who negotiated this with the Taliban. And this decision has been implemented later by the following American administration. You can perfectly understand that we cannot remain with our limited military capacity in Afghanistan if the Americans are withdrawing.

Once this has happened, and this could have been managed in a better way, for sure, what I can ensure you is that we are going to do all we can and use all our leverage, economic and political, in order to try to defend the Afghan people with humanitarian help and with political conditionality on the human rights issue.

 

Link to the video: https://audiovisual.ec.europa.eu/en/video/I-209872?&lg=INT&tin=720&tout=1853