In Afghanistan, Don’t Count on Europe

The Continental Divide

By Eric Frey

Published November 26, 2008, issue of December 05, 2008.
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On January 20, European leaders will get the American president they always wished for. Barack Obama is a committed multilateralist whose view of the world is quite similar to their own. The president-elect is even more popular among Europeans than he is in his own country.

Obama, however, will probably not see his wish fulfilled, which is for more Europeans troops for Afghanistan. The future of the troubled mission in the war-torn country could quickly develop into a trans-Atlantic bone of contention. The reason is not that the partners disagree on the urgency of the situation or about possible solutions. The dispute is over who will actually bear the burden.

Europeans are as concerned as Americans about the deterioration of the political and security situation in Afghanistan. They are deeply worried about the military advances of the radical Taliban and the feeble response of the government of President Hamid Karzai. In many ways, Afghanistan is a bigger problem for Europe than it is for the United States. It is geographically closer to Europe, and most of the opium that is cultivated there — Afghanistan accounts for 90% of global production — ends up in European drug markets.

Moreover, European leaders, whether it is British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, French President Nicolas Sarkozy or German Chancellor Angela Merkel, all agree that Afghanistan’s biggest short-term need is better security, which can only be provided by NATO troops.

European leaders may dislike the heavy-handed tactics of the American military that frequently result in civilian casualties, but they strongly believe that the international mission in Afghanistan is essential and needs to be strengthened. Moreover, they have a strong political interest in seeing the first NATO mission beyond Europe’s borders succeed. They fully understand that “America cannot do this alone,” as Obama told 200,000 cheering Germans in his Berlin speech last summer. So why is it so hard to give the new American president what he wants?

First, the war is far less popular among the European public than it is among the elites. With the exception of the British, ordinary citizens do not understand why it should be necessary to send young men to a faraway country where they risk their lives to rescue a corrupt regime. There is very little public tolerance for casualties. When 10 French soldiers were killed outside Kabul last summer, it shocked France and led to loud calls for a withdrawal. So any government that is facing re-election will shy away from a heightened military commitment.

That is particularly true for Germany. The German government just boosted the number of its troops in Afghanistan by 1,000 to 4,500, the third-largest contingent after America’s and Britain’s deployments. But Germany rejects American and British demands to move some soldiers from the quiet north to the troubled south, also because Germans will go to the polls next year. “Our partners know that this is impossible in Germany, especially during an election year,” Karsten Voigt, a foreign policy expert for the Social Democratic Party, told the news magazine Der Spiegel. Only Britain, Canada and, to some extent, the Netherlands are helping American troops to fight the Taliban in war-torn southern provinces such as Kandahar and Helmand. And even in those countries there is little enthusiasm about stepping up the engagement.

Despite all the talk about shared responsibility, the Afghanistan mission is still essentially an American project. While 41 different countries have contributed military personnel to the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan, American troops represent a majority of the foreign forces in the country. And it is Americans who are doing much of the fighting and dying. More than 60% of all foreign soldiers killed since 2001 have been American. As Obama plans to withdraw military units from Iraq and send some to Afghanistan, the imbalance will only increase.

Some may blame the skewed division of labor on European hypocrisy, but most political scientists cite structural causes. For them, the Afghanistan mission suffers from the typical obstacle to every kind of international cooperation: the free-rider problem. Europeans want someone to stabilize Afghanistan, but they would prefer for someone else to do it. And they know that Obama’s interest in finishing the job that George W. Bush started in 2001 is so strong that he will ultimately do it alone. By keeping their heads down and finding excuses, European leaders hope, with good reason, that they can have their cake and eat it too. That was the pattern of trans-Atlantic cooperation even during the Cold War, and it remains with us to this day.

The same logic applies to the fate of the detainees in Guantanamo. All European governments applaud Obama’s plans to close the ill-fated camp on Cuba, but so far they all have refused to accept any of the released inmates, making it much harder for the new administration to carry out its promise. The only European country where some received shelter was dirt-poor Albania.

One can assume that Obama’s advisers know the mood in Europe and do not put too high of hopes on their partners’ willingness to help. A bit of prodding and some scolding may be appropriate and useful; a massive public dispute is not. The best hope for Obama would be to get the European Union and individual countries to pay more for economic reconstruction and development. The old division that America does the fighting and Europe pays the bill is likely to continue in the new era of trans-Atlantic friendship.

Eric Frey is managing editor of the Vienna daily Der Standard.

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