Europe’s Obama Problem: Afghanistan

Europeans saw a fervent wish fulfilled with Barack Obama’s election victory, but it could mean more than they bargained for. For all their enthusiasm over the prospect of a new tone from Washington, European governments now face the sobering realization that the new President is far better placed than his predecessor to call on Europe to put more troops in harm’s way in Afghanistan. It is a call they’d rather not take, but one that some may find hard to refuse.

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“Afghanistan will be at the top of the U.S. priorities for Europe,” says Tomas Valasek, director of foreign policy and defense at the Centre for European Reform, a London think tank. He says Obama will appeal for more soldiers in the dangerous southern part of Afghanistan to fight Taliban insurgents. “Obama will put more troops in the country and expect Europe to do the same. And even though all European governments are short on troops and money, many will respond in kind.” (See pictures of Obama’s family tree.)

Others fear that Obama will expose the gulf between the European Union’s rhetoric on foreign policy and its capability. Many member governments bridled at President George W. Bush, but his grating unilateralism gave them an alibi for inaction, says Daniel Korski, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. That excuse will no longer fly with Obama, Korski says. “Afghanistan will be viewed in Washington as a litmus test of whether Europeans should be taken seriously as strategic partners,” he says. “It will be the issue that pushes them to take more responsibility for global problems themselves.”

Obama can already count on a European political climate that has changed dramatically since the 2003 invasion of Iraq: German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown all enjoy comfortable working relationships with the outgoing Bush Administration. (See pictures of Iraq’s revival.)

But while Brown has already said he backs any effort to get other NATO countries to share the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) burden in Afghanistan, Merkel last week insisted she would not send German troops in the volatile southern region. And Sarkozy has already hinted that his forces are already stretched due to ongoing missions in Chad, Kosovo, Congo and Lebanon.

Indeed, at the level of pure headcount, Europe has few extra soldiers to send. European nations already provide around half of the 50,000-strong ISAF force in Afghanistan, with the British, French, Germans and Dutch making the principle contributions. On top of that, this week the E.U. launched its first naval operation: a mission to fight piracy and armed robbery off the coast of Somalia. Since the beginning of 2007, the E.U. has had 15 ‘battlegroups’, each with at least 1,500 soldiers, dealing with local crises around the globe. “They are not just chicken, they are not just cheap. They have real resource problems,” says one high level NATO diplomat of European governments. (See pictures of piracy in Somalia.)

NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has consistently called on Europeans to shoulder more of the burden, and particularly to lift so-called “caveats” that some countries have in place to limit deployments to relatively safe parts of Afghanistan. Yet he acknowledges that Europeans are very active in institution building, civic reconstruction, economic assistance, advising on tackling corruption, and helping the Afghan and Pakistani governments improve border security — all areas where the E.U. has a lot of experience.

“We must not get entangled in pointless debates about ‘good’ civilian versus ‘bad’ military approaches,” de Hoop Scheffer said in Berlin on Monday. “Rather, we must bring civilian and military efforts closer together in a comprehensive approach — both in-theater, and, as important, at the institutional level.”

But one of the biggest challenges for E.U. governments and parliaments will be winning over hostile public opinion to further sacrifice. “At the moment, European allies simply don’t believe there is a winning strategy for Afghanistan,” says Ron Asmus, a former Clinton administration official who is now the Executive Director of the Brussels-based Transatlantic Center.

He says Obama’s task is more fundamental: redefine the Afghan strategy as part of an overhaul of U.S. global security policy, and one that gives credence to the ‘soft power’ of persuasion that Europe is more comfortable with. “Europeans need to feel the Afghan strategy can succeed,” Asmus says. “And if the political will exists, then they will feel it is a worthwhile risk, and not just an effort to placate the Americans.”

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