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Withdrawal from Afghanistan: Causes and Consequences

November 8, 2021

Speaker: Albert Gerard (Bert) Koenders, Former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Special Envoy of the World Bank on Fragility, The Netherlands
Chair: Michael Leigh, Senior Adjunct Professor of European Studies

A SAIS alumnus and former visiting professor, Bert Koenders makes his return to the Bologna campus to answer questions from both the chair, Professor Michael Leigh, and a panel of students on the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and its consequences in the country and internationally. Koenders draws on his experience working both on the ground in Afghanistan and in his home country of The Netherlands, where he served as foreign minister, development minister, and member of parliament.

Koenders begins his remarks by stating that while the US withdrawal from Afghanistan was clearly a pivotal moment for the country and the region, it will prove to be of lesser importance for the US and Europe going forward. The reality, for Koenders, is that the west has not put enough emphasis on development Afghanistan for the last several years, and that the situation on the ground in Afghanistan will not play a pivotal role in western foreign policy going forward.

He continues with the general assertion that if, after a twenty-year intervention in a country, the same government is still in power, the intervention was a clear failure. In answering the first student question, Koenders notes three failures of the intervention in Afghanistan: 1) excluding the Taliban and other local officials from peace negotiations, 2) conducting the war in Iraq at the same time as the intervention, and 3) focusing too strictly on anti-terrorism rather than economic and social development. He underlines the importance of listening to the people who live in the place where you're intervening, saying that his contacts with civil servants and civil society in Afghanistan, and those in the diaspora, were critical to his work.

Onto the question of the US withdrawal itself, Koenders explains that while he understands President Biden's reasoning, a complete withdrawal at the time it occurred was not wholly necessary. Firstly, he states that the US's deal with the Taliban (made during the Trump administration) could have been adjusted without any undue escalation. More broadly, he contends that western forces did not have to leave at all and could have continued to manage the situation on the ground in Afghanistan.

Turning to the prospects of the Afghan people, Koenders is asked what the international community plans to do going forward regarding the humanitarian concerns in the country, including migration, terrorism, and human rights. Here Koenders emphasizes the necessity to protect the social and economic gains made in the country over the last twenty years. While the west has significantly less power in the country now, engaging with Taliban under some conditionality agreements will be key if there is any hope of securing gains in women's rights, economic growth, and conflict prevention.

Finally, Koenders explains that the manner of the US withdrawal added momentum to the push for European strategic autonomy. He notes that volatility in American foreign policy forces Europe to consider building its own strategic culture, and reconsider the balance of burden, and control, within the transatlantic relationship going forward.