It is remarkable that any army could occupy a country for two decades yet leave in such a hurry. The nature of the US exit from Afghanistan will, for obvious reasons, be a memory that lingers: the photos of desperate people queuing at the airport; the international dash to get their citizens out; the bombings targeted at defenceless and terrified people.
Earlier this week, when the White House’s press spokeswoman Jen Psaki was asked about this ignominious withdrawal, she refused to concede that there was anything wrong with it: “I would say that this is now on track to be the largest airlift in US history. So no, I would not say that it is anything but a success.”
The long-term consequences of the collapse of Afghanistan will naturally take time to come into focus. But it seems unlikely that they will be associated with “success”. Already it seems inevitable that America’s enemies — in particular China — will have noted how easy it is to push around the world’s superpower. Meanwhile, America’s allies now face challenges of their own; the EU and UK now surely know that they need to be more operationally adept, capable of doing basic things like holding an airport without requiring the support of the US.
Of course, none of this can be predicted with absolute certainty. And yet I strongly suspect that there is at least one consequence that Europe can anticipate as a foregone conclusion: that, thanks to the fall of Afghanistan, in the coming months and years the West will experience a new migration challenge that it is incapable of preventing.
Throughout the last decade, the migration crisis in Europe has been exacerbated by the fact that many European governments and citizens had nothing but sympathy for the millions of immigrants — many of them from Syria — whose homelands have been destroyed by war. Indeed, when Angela Merkel steps down this year, she will largely be remembered for her decision in 2015 to open Germany’s borders to Syrian refugees.
Yet although there have been large numbers of Syrians among those who arrived in Europe in the past six years, Syrian refugees did not make up the bulk of the arrivals. Instead, the Syrian migrants ended up inadvertently becoming the sharp tip of the world’s migration demands. Behind them came people from a bewildering array of other countries; from across Africa, the Middle East and Far East.
Even then, Afghan refugees were certainly among them. I met many myself in the refugee camps of southern Europe. On one occasion, I spent the day with a group of Hazara Afghans, a persecuted Persian-speaking minority group. I remember one of them asking me why Syrians should be given priority over Afghans when applying for asylum in the EU. After all, he said, by that point Syria had only been at war for five years. His country had been at war for 15 years. Should that not be taken into account?
It was — and remains — an important question. One of the most complex aspects of the global migration challenge is the fact that everybody has a competing claim to asylum, and that privileging one group inevitably comes at the expense of another.
In any case, it is striking that six years ago, Germany and almost every other European country reported the same phenomenon, which was that many people said they were Syrians in order to get into Europe. However, once they were inside, very few countries were able to verify this. And for much of the general public it was enough to be told that Europe was responding to a “refugee” crisis rather than a “migrant crisis”.
Which brings us back to the situation in Afghanistan today. In the coming months and years, there will invariably be a steady flow of refugees fleeing the Taliban’s Afghanistan. The hurried nature of the American departure means that there will have been people left behind who have a credible case for asylum in the West. And as the Taliban’s rule once again reasserts itself, they will attempt to flee.
At the same time, within the West there will be a prevailing cloud of shame hanging over the way in which Afghanistan has been abandoned. NGOs and other groups will argue that we all have a moral obligation to accept refugees fleeing Afghanistan. As ever, they will not bother specifying where this obligation begins or ends. Many will be persuaded that we are in some way responsible for Afghanistan not being a thriving liberal democracy. They will be told that we are responsible for Afghanistan’s precarious humanitarian situation. And because there will be a grain of truth in this — if nothing else then because of the nature of the exit — it will be exceptionally difficult to reject those claiming to be fleeing Afghanistan.
The problem will lie, as it always does, in the details. No European country or border force has anything like the number of experts required to work out where exactly those entering Europe have come from. The dearth of language experts alone has remained unfixed since 2015. And as a result, no doubt many migrants who are not from Afghanistan will recognise the benefits of pretending that they are.
Some of this will affect America, though its geographic position makes it a less accessible destination. Europe does not have the same luxury. Indeed, one border official I spoke to last week said that the UK is already seeing an increase in the number of people crossing the English Channel claiming to be Afghan refugees. In many cases, this will be untrue. After all, if it were then they got to the UK awfully fast.
But is it so surprising that they would say such a thing? No doubt they are aware that the UK and EU feel morally sordid over the Afghan withdrawal. The smuggling gangs will certainly know this, and will advise migrants on how to use it to their advantage.
What will make it more complex still is that politicians and the public cannot have an honest conversation about the impact of this new migrant wave. At times of humanitarian crisis such as these, most Western Europeans do not want to hear politicians being “heartless”. But after their experience of 2015, it seems unlikely that they will want them to be too relaxed either.
The British public, for instance, currently believes that it is their moral duty to take in refugees from Afghanistan. But I suspect that feeling will not last indefinitely. It will take years for us to know how many Afghans decide to flee to Europe. It seems likely, though, that while a significant number will come from Afghanistan, an even more significant number will arrive pretending to be Afghans. And once they see Europe welcoming these migrants with open arms, others will likely follow.
There can be little doubt that those concerned about the safety of Afghanistan’s refugees are well-intentioned. But that doesn’t mean those good intentions won’t be exploited. And when that happens, neither European citizens nor European governments will be capable of dealing with the consequences.