Europe Agrees With U.S. on Afghan Mission: Time to Start Pulling Troops (6/23)     Print

In Europe, President Obama’s declaration on Afghanistan that the tide of war has turned and that American troops be steadily withdrawn was met with enthusiasm – and no dissent – both from countries that have contributed heavily to the war effort and to those, such as Germany, that have been reluctant partners in the campaign. Just as the allies followed Washington’s lead into the anti-Taliban escalation in the last three years, they will also quickly follow the U.S. signal to depart.

Transatlantic dissensions about Afghanistan have often had to be papered over during the three years since the newly-elected Obama made the surprise move to order a 30,000-man offensive surge in Afghanistan. While wanting to maintain NATO solidarity, many allies have been waiting for the U.S. cue to start winding down the Western combat role.

Several allies promptly announced similar cutbacks of their own. Britain - the second largest contributor to NATO’s Afghanistan operation - has more than 10,000 soldiers, including special forces. It has pledged to pull back forces by 2015 - and earlier if conditions allow. France, too, has now announced a phased withdrawal of its 4,000 soldiers serving in Afghanistan. Germany - which provides the third largest contingent, but has seen little combat because of national “caveats” set by Berlin - has announced that it is “firming up” plans to withdraw 5,000 troops.

Although the campaign supporting the Afghan governments is being conducted under NATO auspices as the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), Washington has been the central moving force in providing firepower and men and setting the strategy or commitment. After an initial “surge” to promote counter-insurgency techniques, blunt the Taliban’s success and start pacifying the country, the strategy will now revert to a more limited role for the West, trying to prop up the Kabul government and destroy terrorist pockets via commando raids and drone strikes.

This policy shift by Obama has been expected for some time by European allies – some of whom such as Estonia have taken severe casualties for their size relative to their population, as well as some such as France and Britain that have been major contributors alongside the U.S. “We were worried that we were all being bled for a strategy that was proving costly,” according to a European diplomat in Washington. “Now maybe the decision to start winding down the combat role willl help Kabul and other regional capitals – such as Islamabad and New Delhi and Riyadh – to step to a larger overall commitment to stabilize Afghanistan instead of seeing it tear itself apart.”

Given their doubts about the mission in recent years, the allies in Europe were gratified to see President Obama override the views of some key military advisers, opting for an earlier, heavier schedule of troop withdrawal. He said that the steady withdrawal could be reviewed in light of developments in handing over the military leadership to the Afghans. Most allies however seem to feel that the trend to end the West’s combat role there is inevitable, given the budget and political pressures on Obama. He faces re-election in 2012 and the war has become increasingly unpopular for U.S. domestic opinion. Making a key point, Obama said in a nationally televised speech that America had done what it could be nation-building in Afghanistan. Now, he said, it is time to turn to “nation-building at home."

The Europeans’ acceptance of this view was manifest the day after Obama’s speech. “We can see the tide is turning,” NATO Secretary General Anders Rasmussen said in a statement that echoed the U.S. President’s own wording. “The Taliban are under pressure. The Afghan security forces are getting stronger every day.”

The day after Obama’s announcement in a speech on June 22, French President Nicolas Sarkozy revealed a similar plan to withdraw all French troops. He emphasized that they would be extracted in “a proportional manner and in a timeframe similar to the pullback of the American reinforcements.”

This decision came after a telephone conference with between Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has brought his country back into NATO and often pledged his solidarity with Washington in using force against terrorism and crimes against humanity – as in the current campaign in Libya. On Afghanistan, the BBC reported Sarkozy saying that France shares the American analysis and objectives and is “happy” with the U.S. decision.

A similar reaction came from British Prime Minister David Cameron, who released a statement that he “fully agreed [with] the president's assessment, noting the good progress being made on security transition.” As reported by the Arab news organization, Al Jazeera, Cameron said that he and Obama “agreed that in due course the progress on transition would make it possible to sustain pressure on the insurgency.” This position will not assuage doubts among the military establishments in Western countries that the withdrawal of combat forces may prove too hasty for a stable transition from a NATO-led expedition to a still-embryonic Afghan military force. But British forces and those in other EU nations have complained that they are over-stretched and need to cut back on their missions.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle expressed the satisfaction in Berlin – which has been lukewarm at best about any combat mission – that “the prospect of withdrawal is now becoming concrete.”

Glad as these governments are to turn the page in Afghanistan, the transatlantic debate will continue about how NATO fared with ISAF, the alliance’s biggest-ever operation outside Europe, and about what roles should be shouldered by the U.S. and by EU governments in post-conflict stabilization in Afghanistan and about continuing anti-terrorist operations there.

Most Europeans (and certainly all the EU governments) have long been preoccupied with how they can withdraw from Afghanistan militarily (and perhaps even in the civilian development sector if security crumbles in the wake of NATO’s pull-back).

The US and NATO hope that as the withdrawal begins, a military presence will, if necessary, be maintained indefinitely in the country to equip, train and support Afghan troops.

Nations contributing troops to ISAF

NATIONS

TROOPS

Albania

260

Armenia

40

Austria

3

Belgium

507

Bosnia and Herzegovina

55

Bulgaria

602

Canada

2,922

Croatia

320

Czech Republic

519

Denmark

750

Estonia

163

Finland

156

France

3,935

Germany

4,812

Greece

162

Hungary

383

Italy

3,880

Netherlands

192

Norway

406

Poland

2,560

Portugal

133

Romania

1,938

Slovakia

308

Slovenia

80

Spain

1,552

Sweden

500

FYR Macedonia

163

Turkey

1,786

UK

9,500

U.S.

90,000

Table from the BBC