Our European partners are dropping the ball.
By Hans Binnendijk
Sunday, November 11, 2007 12:01 a.m.
KABUL, Afghanistan--The war in Afghanistan is being fought by NATO soldiers near this capital, but it may be lost in the capitals of Europe. Europe's citizenry is tiring of this prolonged and distant conflict, while their governments struggle to maintain NATO solidarity in the face of Taliban advances in Southern Afghanistan and deadly suicide attacks here in Kabul.
More than half of the 53,000 coalition troops deployed to Afghanistan are American. About 41,000 of that coalition total are assigned to NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission; the remaining, mostly American, contingent operates separately under the U.S. Central Command. Together they face an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 active Taliban and other insurgents.
The contribution of America's 36 coalition partners is important, but in many cases it is limited. Most coalition contributions are relatively small; only eight contribute a thousand or more troops. The U.S. and a few key allies such as Britain do most of the fighting. Seven allies join the U.S. in the turbulent southern region while combat operations in the east are also primarily American. Most partners are deployed in the quieter northern and western region. About two thirds of all coalition casualties in Afghanistan are American.
Germany is a top contributor with more than 3,000 troops deployed. The German government last month renewed its engagement in Afghanistan despite the opposition of some 62% of the German public.
But ISAF commanders remain vexed by the limitations placed on the German troops. While they will support Afghan Army combat operations in the north where they are deployed and will fight there in self defense, they have no significant operational reserves for combat. They will respond to emergency situations elsewhere in Afghanistan with logistics and transport. They cannot reinforce combat operations in the south without consulting the Bundestag in Berlin.
Dutch forces serve in the turbulent Uruzgan province and the Canadians are deployed around Kandahar, a Taliban stronghold. Both have experienced considerable fighting. Both are looking for relief. The Dutch government seeks to reduce its 1,600 troop commitment by about a quarter starting next summer, and it is considering withdrawal if reinforcements from other nations cannot be found. The Canadians also prefer to move to a less dangerous mission. NATO leaders fear that the Dutch and Canadian actions could trigger an unraveling of the ISAF coalition with dire consequences for NATO.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates sought at the recent NATO Defense Ministerial to raise more European troops for Afghanistan. He went so far as to suggest that the U.S. might swing its troops from still-volatile Kosovo to Afghanistan if Europeans do not contribute adequately in Afghanistan. Several NATO allies responded with promises of small increases, but not enough to meet the Dutch needs. These small contributions also do not address the growing requirement for reinforcements in Afghanistan.
A recent German Marshall Fund poll showed that European support for combat operations in Afghanistan is only about 31%, so much needs to be done. Three basic points can help European governments make this case before irreversible damage is done.
First, this war is waged in direct response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the U.S. as well as to al-Qaeda sponsored attacks in London and Madrid. The Taliban harboring al Qaeda have systematically proven their brutality to all who deviate from their radical religious beliefs. The war is being fought under the international legitimacy of a September 2001 NATO Article 5 declaration, and a December 2001 U.N. Security Council Resolution. NATO's North Atlantic Council made a clear decision to engage by taking overall responsibility for the ISAF mission. The American people support this conflict, in marked contrast to deep divisions over Iraq.
Second, this war can be won. While Taliban forces have retaken some territory, fighting over the past half year has not been in their favor. Casualties among Taliban leadership have been high, and some of those remaining are contacting the Afghan government and international organizations asking how they might avoid being targeted. Some are suggesting peace talks. Without their sanctuary in Pakistan's frontier provinces, the Taliban and their al Qaeda partners would not last long.
Third, the consequences of failure are severe. A much bloodier civil war would surely break out. Taliban rule would return to much of Afghanistan. Regional instability already evident in Pakistan would escalate. Al Qaeda would regain a more stable base of operations. And NATO would be shattered, having failed at its most important military conflict to date.
Regaining European public support is critical, but more must also be done in Afghanistan to win. A well-crafted and publicly articulated plan is needed using current progress and lessons learned as a foundation. Such a plan might include the following elements.
A comprehensive approach with clear movement towards peace is needed. Recent progress in Iraq's Anbar province can serve as an example. There, moderate Baathist insurgents turned against foreign fighters after concluding that continued collaboration undercut their own interests. The same can happen in Afghanistan, where some relatively moderate Taliban leaders are already looking for relief from ISAF pursuit. Clearly, this will be made more difficult if Taliban insurgents and al-Qaeda terrorists maintain their sanctuary in Pakistan's Northwest frontier areas.
The military pressure on the Taliban leadership has to accelerate to provide incentives for negotiations. The anticipated Taliban Spring offensive this year was pre-empted by an effective offensive, and according to ISAF Commander and U.S. Gen. Dan McNeill, "we have had significant tactical success this fighting season." But Afghanistan has been starved of coalition troops as the buildup in Iraq proceeded. Gen. McNeill estimates that he needs at least four additional deployed battalions plus a rapid response force to stem lawlessness arising from gaps in police reform efforts.
In short, Gen. McNeill needs a surge much smaller than the one in Iraq. One place to get some of these troops is from the NATO Response Force, an impressive but unused capability that NATO leaders refer to as the "Rolls Royce in the garage."
In the longer run, the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP) have to take over Afghan security. Progress growing, training, equipping and mentoring the ANA is proceeding, with the goal of 70,000 vetted and trained troops available at the end of 2008. ANA forces now engage in combat together with embedded ISAF advisers, and they have not broken ranks yet. Elite ANA commando units are being developed to engage in special operations. The ANP is another story. Police units tend to be both local and corrupt. Better vetting and training is long overdue.
Ultimately, a comprehensive approach to peace in Afghanistan hinges on an enhanced economic development effort. There is progress: During the past three years, per capita income has doubled, access to health care has increased eightfold, and roads and telecommunications have improved significantly. However, the key remains agriculture; and large investments are needed in irrigation, food delivery and planting of traditional Afghan crops like figs and almonds. When it comes to the thriving poppy trade, crop eradication only drives farmers into the arms of the Taliban; the solution lies in crop substitution and, again, greater peace and economic development.
Finally, a new, high-profile European High Representative under U.N. auspices should be appointed to pull together the diverse national contributions in Afghanistan and to coordinate military and economic approaches into a comprehensive and coherent whole. Paddy Ashdown provides a good example with his work in Bosnia. Such a High Representative could also help convince European publics to stick with the Afghan effort.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy told the U.S. Congress last week that his nation would remain engaged shoulder to shoulder with the U.S. in Afghanistan. This promise may not be enough. If NATO is to continue fighting in significant numbers in Afghanistan, a major public-diplomacy effort must be launched in Europe. President Bush would do well to suggest the launch of such a campaign to German Chancellor Angela Merkel when she visits him in Texas this weekend.