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France's Afghanistan pull-out signals war fatigue driving European defense cuts

Disillusionment with warfare, coupled with economic troubles, has given European defense cuts strong momentum. But defense experts worry they are being made too haphazardly.

By Isabelle de PommereauCorrespondent / May 25, 2012

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, right, shakes hands with French President Francois Hollande after their joint press conference in Kabul, Afghanistan, Friday, May, 25. Hollande announced that his country's troops had carried out their mission in Afghanistan and that it was time for them to leave, an early pullout that will be coordinated with the United States and other allies.

Joel Saget/AP


Frankfurt, Germany

On a visit to Afghanistan today, newly inaugurated French President François Hollande reiterated his commitment to a full withdrawal of French combat troops by year’s end, well ahead of NATO’s 2014 withdrawal.

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France’s decision highlights the high level of so-called "intervention fatigue” among NATO’s European members as the decade-old Afghanistan conflict winds down and they face the need to make drastic budget cuts to remain solvent. 

“The idea that we have to be a good policeman of the world has been totally discredited, and we’re going to stay home for a while,” Nick Witney, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in London, said following the NATO summit in Chicago earlier this week, which Mr. Hollande attended. “We know now that we can’t do it. We just don’t have the power.”

IN PICTURES – The NATO summit 

The summit highlighted what military experts believe will be Europe's greatest challenge in the post-Afghanistan era: balancing the desire and need to scale back defense spending while supporting a force strong enough to respond to any future challenges and maintain deterrence. 

“The real challenge to the security and prosperity of Europe's people is to continue to count – to avoid being marginalized in a world where newer and more hard-nosed powers make the rules and assert their interests and values while Europe retreats into retirement,” Mr. Witney says.

More and more, the solution defense experts trumpet is the pooling of military resources, which would make a limited budget go further. But individual countries’ unwillingness to cede total control of their military resources has proven a formidable obstacle. 

Intervention fatigue

For decades after World War II, clear confrontations shaped European defense strategies: the cold war, the regional conflicts following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the so-called War on Terror that followed 9-11. But Afghanistan’s financial and human toll has led to a dwindling of already tentative public support for the NATO effort there, and warfare in general. 

“Afghanistan has led NATO countries to rethink their attitude about crisis management, to be less willing to have really complex operations that might spiral into civil wars, where you find yourself with a problem that’s so complex you cannot solve it,” says Henning Riecke, head of the transatlantic program at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.

As a result, European governments are less willing to spend their limited funds on military endeavours.


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