Will NATO do more for Obama?

Obama's popularity abroad may not get him the extra forces in Afghanistan from NATO allies.

Rahmat Gul/AP
Help coming? US helicopters of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force landed in Afghanistan's Baghdis Province Sunday.

American allies' elation over the election of Barack Obama may help the president-elect as he looks to them for more help for the flagging mission in Afghanistan. But analysts say his popularity overseas will only buy him so much goodwill.

That may force Mr. Obama to pony up more American forces for Afghanistan or chart a different course altogether.

"Europeans will make gestures of cooperation, but the idea of a large European cooperation in Afghanistan just isn't in the cards," says George Friedman, founder and chief executive officer of Stratfor, a private intelligence firm.

For more than a year now, the Bush administration has been largely unsuccessful in its effort to get more help for Afghanistan from its allies overseas. European countries say they have given all they can, and, for many, the political landscape at home has restricted their ability to do more.

It is possible that Obama's popularity in Europe may well change this dynamic. Polls taken by the Pew Global Attitudes Project this summer show that Obama enjoys as much as 84 percent approval ratings in countries he is most likely to ask for more help from, such as France, Germany, and Britain.

"It will be quite hard to say no to President Obama," shrugs one European diplomat. Top British defense officials said last week they would look "very carefully" at any request for troops from Obama.

On the other hand, Canada maintains its position that it will redeploy most or all of its troops from Afghanistan by 2011. Canadian Defense Minister Peter MacKay said recently that Obama should look to other NATO allies instead of approaching the usual suspects again.

"The reality is there are other NATO doors that President-elect Obama should be knocking on first," Mr. MacKay said in Nova Scotia in November. "There is an enormous amount of goodwill that has been engendered by President-elect Obama that he might be willing to spend for a cause that he clearly believes in."

Germany, the third-largest contributor to the Afghanistan mission, is restrained by an electorate that is increasingly antiwar and doesn't want to see its military engaged in heavy combat.

During Obama's massive rally in Berlin this summer, the one time he was booed was when he suggested Europeans would be asked to do more in the context of the war on terrorism, points out Constanze Stelzenmüeller, director of the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund, a policy group that promotes transatlantic cooperation.

Still, even with national elections in Germany looming later next year, politicians and policymakers have begun to agree on the need to do more in Afghanistan, says Ms. Stelzenmüeller. It will then be a question of convincing the German people that Germany should play a larger role if Obama asks for more help.

"I think the Germans will make a serious effort but there are limits to what is feasible," she says.

After defeating the Taliban in early 2002, the US gradually began turning the Afghanistan mission over to NATO. At that time, it was seen primarily as a peacekeeping mission, and many allies were enthusiastic to demonstrate their commitment to the alliance and help stretch it beyond its traditional geographic sphere.

But as security conditions began to unravel, the mission became overwhelming for many countries. Some, like Germany, incorporated restrictions into their commitments about what they would or would not do in what had become a combat environment.

Today, there are 41 countries serving across the country, including large contingents of US, British, German, French Dutch, and Canadian forces for a combined NATO and American force of about 61,000. NATO commander Gen. David McKiernan, an American, has asked for at least three additional brigades as well as more helicopters to traverse the mountainous terrain, engineers, military police, police mentoring teams, and even dog teams to detect explosives and narcotics and provide physical security.

But even as Obama brings new vigor to the Afghanistan mission – he has said he will focus US efforts there – NATO allies seem to be tiring of it.

US military officials are currently completing their assessments of what to do in Afghanistan. Regardless of the recommendations they might offer, Obama has pledged to send more forces to Afghanistan as part of a new strategy.

That could let some allies off the hook.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, expected to stay on as defense chief for as much as a year, is also likely to support more forces to tame the violence. He may also look to what worked in Iraq – not only a surge of troops but a settlement with insurgents – to set a different course in Afghanistan.

"The most important aspect of keeping Gates on is ... to try to replicate in Afghanistan what they did in Iraq," says Stratfor's Mr. Friedman.

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