29 November 2009
BRUSSELS – The United States’ partners could deploy some 5,000 extra troops under a new strategy to combat the Afghan insurgency but lack the means or the will to do much more, according to analysts.
Plagued by economic problems, overstretched armies deployed in Iraq or the Balkans and growing military and civilian casualties, European nations are losing appetite for a fight that has dragged on for eight years.
But any tepid response to requests by commanders could hurt US President Barack Obama, who is due to unveil the new strategy on Tuesday, and dispatch more than 30,000 US reinforcements to make it work.
“The Europeans are unable to find sense in this conflict,” said Joseph Henrotin, at Belgium’s Centre for Analysis and International Risk Prevention.
“Many governments no longer see the goal nor what they stand to win,” he said.
The United States is counting on its allies—more than 40 countries have troops in Afghanistan—provide up to 10,000 troops for the counter-insurgency plan devised by top commander US General Stanley McChrystal. Related article: 9,000 Marines to Helmand
Obama will insist on finishing a job started after the September 11, 2001 attacks—when a US-led coalition ousted the Taliban militia for harbouring Osama bin Laden—to break down Al-Qaeda.
But as casualties rise, the benefits of a protracted operation are harder to sift from the risks, and Henrotin said European good will is drying up.
“The strength of their resolve has evaporated little by little. The only real motive that remains, the most important factor, is transatlantic solidarity,” he said.
Main US ally Britain has offered a further 500 troops, on condition that Kabul commits police and soldiers and if other allies boost force levels, as the operations gets smarter by protecting civilians in Afghan towns and cities. Related article: British PM sets Afghan targets
London is likely, along with Germany, Spain and Italy combined, to keep in-country around 1,500 troops who were providing security for the fraud-marred elections in August, a NATO military officer said.
On top of that, Europeans could send some 3,000 extra troops, while partner nation South Korea is due to send another 500.
However Germany will wait until after a new international conference on Afghanistan, set for late January in London, before committing more resources.
“They want to see any further contributions in the context of the overall political environment in which they will be deploying their forces,” NATO spokesman James Appathurai said.
France insists it has reached its limit, although Washington is pressuring Paris to come up with at least 1,000 personnel.
“It’s quite clear that the Europeans aren’t going to do much. Paris doesn’t even look like preparing public opinion” for any increase, said Francois Heisbourg, special advisor at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris.
The lack of support is leaving NATO’s mission, its most challenging ever, increasingly in US hands. Of the roughly 150,000 troops who might be deployed, two thirds would be American.
But just as casualties undermine public backing in Europe, and more crucially among Afghans, US citizens are growing impatient, leaving Obama with a heavy domestic price to pay—more so if his allies don’t dig deeper.
Economic woes, unemployment and health care also weigh on minds, said former US NATO ambassador Kurt Volker, now managing director at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University.
“The US has kind of been immune to some of the difficult domestic politics that some of our European allies have had to deal with. That’s no longer the case,” said Volker, who supports sending more troops.
NATO’s troubled Afghan effort tops the agenda when alliance foreign ministers meet in Brussels on Thursday. Military officers will also meet in Belgium on December 7 to discuss the mission’s resources.