- British and Irish soldiers, serving here in Mali. UK prime minister Boris Johnson was forced to write to British troops, reassuring them their efforts in Afghanistan were not in vain (Photo: Defence Images)
By ANNELIES PAUWELS BRUSSELS, 28. SEP 2021
The US military withdrawal from Afghanistan raised criticism among current and former service members of Western armed forces that were once deployed in the country.
Emotionally distressed and frustrated voices emerged, for instance, from US and UK veterans of the Afghanistan war. The prevailing sentiment is that of resentment and disappointment that their efforts, injuries, and the deaths of battlefield companions may have been in vain, in particular given the rapid takeover of the Taliban and the risk of the country descending into civil war.
- One-in-five defendants in the Washington capitol riots in January had served in the military (Photo: EUobserver)
The vociferous criticism and concerns spurred military and non-military leaders to reassure their troops and boost morale. UK prime minister Boris Johnson reassured the British troops in a letter, stating that their efforts were not in vain, as they succeeded in their “central mission” of keeping the UK safe from attacks launched from Afghanistan. The last commander of the German contingent in Afghanistan, already withdrawn from the country in June, also congratulated German soldiers with their “mission accomplished”.
The worsening security situation in Afghanistan following the US withdrawal may fuel right-wing radicalisation among (former) service members of Western troops that were once deployed there. In Germany, the chairman of the Association of German Veterans already warned that current events could make some of the Bundeswehr’s veterans susceptible for recruitment by right-wing extremist groups; some right-wing veteran groups would have already emerged in the country.
The recent events in Afghanistan fit in perfectly with some recurring right-wing extremist themes. The impression of a ‘pointless’ war with a huge human and financial cost suits their anti-government narratives. The events may also feed their anti-democratic and anti-liberalist narratives, as they invigorate the idea of the demise of the Western democratic model.
Right-wing extremists in online communities have even praised the Taliban for their conservative and autocratic ruling and overthrowing of liberal values. The Taliban ‘victory’ over the world’s most powerful military also serves to demonstrate that long-term and active resistance “pays off in the end”. Also, the risk of Afghanistan turning into a renewed cradle of anti-Western terrorism and potential refugee flows from the region are invaluable for right-wing extremist propagandists.
Right-wing extremism among armed forces
These recruitment narratives may echo particularly among frustrated and enraged (former) service members. Right-wing radicalisation among armed forces in Europe is not new. In 2020, the German domestic intelligence service reported that more than 1,000 individuals working for the German armed forces were suspected of right-wing extremism.
Earlier this month it emerged that a group of Bundeswehr reservists had founded a right-wing extremist group and was in possession of weapons and ammunition.
More recently, a Belgian career soldier with battlefield experience in Afghanistan stole weapons from military barracks and threatened to kill health experts and politicians.
Also the US army may be confronted with a right-wing radicalisation issue: almost one-in-five of the defendants in the capitol riots in January, for instance, had served in the military.
Right-wing extremism may have a particular attraction among armed forces for several reasons. Right-wing extremists tend to valorise military activity and demonstrate a high fascination with weapons, which fits the spirits of armed forces. Researchers have also analysed how right-wing extremist groups actively attempt to recruit among military forces, as they would be highly valuable members for their organisation.
Military personnel may also display some vulnerability factors that favour their recruitment into violent extremist milieus.
For instance, recent research shows how radicalised individuals with a military background are more likely to suffer from trauma and mental illness, and that they are more often challenged with interpersonal problems and anger toward society. A difficult transition from military service to civilian life may also play a role: in their post-military life, soldiers can struggle to find the same sense of belonging and of purpose, which extremist groups are eager to exploit.
The armed forces are a reflection of society: a general increase in right-wing extremism will thus translate into an increase in radicalisation issues among military personnel.
Nevertheless, the radicalisation of individuals with military experience is potentially more dangerous. These recruits can bring right-wing extremist organisations legitimacy, access to weapons, and other combat skills. This makes their potential terrorist attacks much more lethal.
What can EU member states do to reduce this threat? A first step is to strengthen policies aimed at addressing mental health issues among service members and veterans, for instance, by eliminating barriers to seeking health care, such as stigma and cultural taboos. There is also space to provide support services to facilitate a better transition from military to civilian life.
Simultaneously, member states should introduce programming aimed at preventing and countering violent extremism in the military, where it has thus far not gained traction.
The societal impact of the swift withdrawal from Afghanistan will not be limited to Afghanistan. Adequate measures are needed to limit its impact on Europe as well, even if it comes from less visible forces.
Annelies Pauwels is a research fellow at the Flemish Peace Institute in Brussels, where she focuses on violent extremism and terrorism. Prior to that, she conducted research on conflict and crime prevention for several international organisations, including the EU Institute for Security Studies (EUISS), the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), and the UN Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI). Her previous research projects have focused, among others, on jihadist and right-wing terrorism, radicalisation in prison settings, and the EU’s terrorism prevention initiatives and cooperation.