Europe may cut military role in Afghanistan

Debate is raging in Italy and Germany, and to a lesser extent the Netherlands and Denmark, on whether they should remain in the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF), already grappling with a shortage of troops in the face of one of the most intense military engagements in decades.

“There is a good prospect that we are going to lose some” contributions from certain countries, a US administration official told AFP, as European nations face upcoming votes at home on their reconstruction, military and training commitments in Afghanistan.

The NATO-led 37-nation ISAF and a separate US-led coalition, in total about 50,000 foreign soldiers, are together with Afghan security forces fighting to block the return to power of the Taliban after the hardline Islamic militia was ousted in late 2001.

But with the fighting now at its toughest since then, and more deaths among ISAF forces — including the friendly fire” incident Friday that killed three British soldiers — Washington is deeply worried about eroding support for the effort.

“It will be disappointing if there are fewer NATO partners that are involved in this mission,” the US official said.

“Italy and Germany are the ones that are of serious concern,” the official added, citing Italy as “one that we are really concerned about.”

With 2,500 troops, Italy heads NATO’s Herat-based regional command in western Afghanistan.

Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D’Alema recently blamed a lack of coordination between US and ISAF forces for hundreds of Afghan civilian deaths, which he called “morally unacceptable.”

“The Italians can be proud of what they are doing but at the end of the day it’s not so much a referendum on ‘are we making a difference?’ but really a referendum about how closely do you want to be associated with the US administration,” the US official said.

In Germany, where polls show a strong 64 percent majority calling for withdrawal, parliament would have to vote on whether to continue with commitments for reconstruction, military deployment and training of Afghan forces.

The United States is particularly worried about the military commitment.

“As the issue of civilian casualties becomes more and more an issue in German politics, that is another one that is of real concern,” said the US official.

“And if the concerns are really high, that might spill over into the training of security forces.”

Germany has lost 25 soldiers, three police officers and four civilians in Afghanistan since 2002.

The past month has been particularly grim with the abduction by the Taliban of two German engineers, one of whom was shot dead. The other is reportedly ill and begging for his life.

Germany has contributed some 3,000 troops to the NATO mission and has six Tornado reconnaissance planes helping to spot Taliban hideouts.

About 100 elite troops have a mandate to participate in the US-led anti-Taliban Operation Enduring Freedom but are not currently deployed against insurgents in the south.

In the Netherlands, there is some unease about how long the Afghanistan effort will continue but US officials believe cuts in the military deployment will be spared.

Similar concerns face Denmark but officials say its deployment is not on the US radar screen as one that is really in danger.

Other key countries like Canada and Britain remain committed despite their own losses. On Friday three British soldiers were killed while fighting Taliban forces near Kajaki Dam in Helmand Province after being hit by a bomb dropped by a US fighter jet.

Two other soldiers were injured in the incident. The United States and British military and NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, under which the troops were serving, have all said they will investigate.

The blunder was the latest in a string of “friendly fire” deaths involving US planes in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Kurt Volker, the principal US deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs, is expected to travel to Europe in early September to prod countries to maintain their Afghan presence.

“I think he is going to make some public remarks illustrating how important Afghanistan is and some of the things the European countries can be particularly proud of, in terms of achievements in Afghanistan,” the US official said. “We are hoping that can help.”

WASHINGTON (AFP) – The United States is worried about weakening Italian and German military commitments in Afghanistan as casualties increase in the fight to stem the bloody Taliban insurgency, officials said.

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