The rape of Europa

The Rape of Europe by Rubens (1628-1629), Prado Museum

          The rape or kidnapping of Europa by Zeus, disguised as a white bull, is deeply rooted in Western mythology. Pictorial and artistic representations in general are numerous with Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt or Darius Milhaud in music, André Chénier and Rimbaud in literature and up to Botero for sculpture. Zeus could symbolize today the hubris of power, the triumph of violence allied to materialism, and Europa the woman scorned.

Afghanistan, conquered but still resistant over the centuries, subjected more recently to huge transformations of a part of its society, then abandoned, is a sort of contemporary version of the abduction of the Phoenician princess. The consequences, especially humanitarian, are terrible, whereas we have completely averted our gaze away from this tragedy, out of spite or powerless.

Only a few voices are heard, coming from humanitarians but very rarely from politicians, to denounce the drama that is played in the heartland of South Asia. This scandal is intolerable due responsibilities we have claimed to assume in the region. For the new harkis of the cities as well as for the abandoned rural masses, an act of late repentance will not repair anything. We must speak out and above all act for Afghanistan. If Europe – once a victim as Europa, like today’s women and children in particular – does not want to appear as a blasé predator but is truly a pole of civilization, this role falls first and foremost to it.

For Afghanistan © PP

It is not a question, after so many experts of the region, such as Peter Hopkirk (see The Great Game), of writing a thesis on Afghanistan but rather of tacking stock of a state of emergency and launching an appeal.

In a few words, the situation is the following since the sudden and brutal abandonment of the country by the international coalition: the contraction of the economy is unprecedented while international aid accounted for 80% of the budget and half of a $20 billion GNP under former President Ashram Gani.

Millions of Afghans were employed in the armed forces, bureaucracy and international organizations. Assets of $9 billion deposited in foreign banks have been frozen. The fact that women have been put away from education and economy will have serious consequences (NB: $1 billion, or 5% of GNP, according to estimate). Afghanistan is now one of the poorest countries in Asia. One million children are starving and 25% of a total population of 40 million suffer from real food shortages, according to the World Food Programme (WFP). Per capita income per year  has fallen from $500 to $350.

The collapse of the regime could be catastrophic. According to the International Crisis Group, famine could kill more than war in two decades. In 4 months what happened is the equivalent of 5 years of Syrian conflict, according to the UNDP Representative, Abdullah al-Dardari, former Deputy Prime minister of Syria.

The State Department says it has contributed $280 million since last August through humanitarian assistance.  Countries such as Russia, Turkey and Pakistan, China in a more embryonic way, even some neighbouring countries such as Turkmenistan – which has provided electricity and maintained relations with all parties over the years – provide assistance to the new regime. But it is not up to the challenge of the survival of a nation.

It was not until last December 22 that the UN Security Council adopted a resolution allowing humanitarian exemptions to the sanctions regime imposed after the Taliban victory. The US Treasury will thus grant special licences to facilitate the work of NGOs. The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) announced a food programme through the Islamic Development Bank.

On September 21 in New York, during the ministerial meeting organized by the United Nations on the future of Afghan women, the French Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs said he wanted to “accompany those who remain”  pledging a humanitarian aid of €100 million and “accompanying those who leave”. But what will happen to the Malalai High School for girls or the Kabul Mother and Child Hospital?

But the strongest voice in Europe came from Germany with the presentation on 23 December by Annalena Baerbock, the new Minister of Auwärtiges Amt, of a Federal Government Action Plan. The minister considered that “the greatest humanitarian disaster of our time” was unfolding before our eyes. Many in Afghanistan lived in daily fear and because we had a “responsibility” towards them they should not be abandoned.  Germany with €600 million was the  largest humanitarian donor for the country. This in no way meant giving the Taliban political legitimacy and recognition. 

It is a moment of truth for Europe in the sense, of  a large geographical area united by the same civilization. It should involve our British friends, experts in South Asia, since the United Kingdom has always been a major donor of humanitarian aid (NB: £286 million UK aid assistance in 2021 and £3.5 billion total aid since 2001).

This is indeed the priority, that of massive humanitarian support, corresponding to a duty of assistance to a nation in danger. But beyond that, geo-strategic considerations should also determine our attitude. 

Afghanistan can indeed prove to be a textbook case, as one might think from the fall of Kabul. It brings together many major international issues: regional crises in a nuclear zone, legitimacy of interventions in failed states, humanitarian dramas, development of terrorism, recomposition of the new world, redefinition of inter-state political organizations and alliances, major economic projects of the 21st century on a global scale.

Seen from this angle, the Afghan tragedy cannot only leave indifferent, but compels a renewed reflection on Foreign Policy. If this is the case, the conqueror, the seducer, will not have limited himself to seize and then give up just as brutally, like Europa.

Abduction of Europa, Pompeii – Naples, National archeological museum

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