As a crucial NATO summit opens tonight in both France and Germany – in the cities of Strasbourg and nearby Baden-Baden – Barack Obama used both venues to politely urge more allied help for the NATO mission in Afghanistan, casting it as an international, not just an American, crisis.
Allowing terror havens to exist in the Afghan region is "a threat not just to the US, but to Europe," President Obama told a press conference in this city, home of Goethe and Gutenberg, even adding that an Al Qaeda attack may be "more likely" in Europe because of its geographic "proximity." The new president, on a continent deeply opposed to the Iraq war, distinguished between Afghanistan as a war in which Europe would fight if attacked – and Iraq, which he called a "a war of choice."
"We [had] lost our focus on Afghanistan; and now we have refocused," Obama said, a message many Europeans officials say is long overdue.
Still, diplomatic sources anticipate the dispatch of only several hundred to a few thousand more troops from NATO countries, whose militaries are stretched and whose publics have lost interest in a fight seen as "far away in the Hindu Kush," as one German military official put it.
Obama recently boosted the number of US troops in Afghanistan to 68,000 by the fall, in line with a new strategy to balance military and civil reconstruction. Europe and Canada have 30,000 troops there; the Americans are in town hoping for more troops, or at least more funding and equipment.
Yet as the US shifts attention from Iraq to Afghanistan, Europeans are variously war-weary and unconvinced. Arguments here against troops run the gamut: European leaders say their political futures are at risk over casualties. Some officials feel a solution in tribal Afghanistan, "graveyard of empires," is impossible. The popular view of the crisis has drifted from that of a legitimate war to an "anti-war" sensibility, with a leitmotif that, while serious and vexing, it "is not our problem."
Europeans also say in a slightly louder voice that the US made a mistake by allowing the Taliban to reemerge during the height of the Iraq war.
Under Obama, a new US interagency white paper on Afghanistan prescribes a strong, coordinated diplomatic, civil, and military effort – the language combines "urgency" and "achievable objectives" – to boost the Afghan Army and police in a way that will "allow us and our partners to wind down our combat operations."
The US strategy emphasizes a swift initiative. But as a senior official in Berlin stated, "Europe is not good at doing this speedily."
Milestones at Strasbourg
The Strasbourg meeting, "NATO in 2020: What Lies Ahead?" marks several milestones: It is the 60th anniversary of NATO; a new civilian NATO chief will be announced, as Jaap de Hoop Scheffer retires; Croatia and Albania will formally join the alliance; and the French under President Nicolas Sarkozy will become full members again, more than 40 years after President Charles de Gaulle withdrew the French over institutional disagreements.
Yet it is the question of Afghanistan, and the alliance's response to the new US strategy, that sits like several restless elephants in the gilded Strasbourg meeting rooms. Before the Afghan deployment, Obama stated, NATO was "an alliance so effective that it never had to fight." But he told the mostly European leaders present that NATO's approach must be rethought "for 21st century challenges."
An uphill battle for US in Europe
The new administration knows it has an uphill battle in Europe. Some US officials privately acknowledge the Obama White House will not sacrifice its presidency in an Afghan quagmire, waiting for help from an alliance that it founded, but which could be unwilling or unable to move with alacrity. For the Americans to push aside NATO on the ground in Afghanistan in order to succeed – would raise major questions about the alliance's viability and future, well before 2020.
Still, Obama is making a case here, using a similar language of "unity" in the face of crisis that he used at the G-20 meeting.
Standing with President Sarkozy in France, he called for a more robust military for Europe, saying "the more capability we see here in Europe, the more effective we will be in coordinating our activities."
Standing with President Merkel in Germany, he deferred criticism aimed at her country, which requires parliamentary approval to deploy troops, saying instead that Germany is a "stalwart member of NATO" that has "nothing to be ashamed of." But he also stated "we need to bring all elements of our power to bear" on what is NATO's first military engagement.
Much actual combat in Afghanistan is not done through coordinated NATO channels, but takes place in the Taliban-heavy south, in a patchwork of often heroic and ad hoc efforts by Australia, Canada, Great Britain, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Poland. As journalist Judy Dempsey noted in a March 18 column in the International Herald Tribune, "This 'Group of the South' recently convened in Edinburgh, Scotland, to discuss strategy and tactics with the United States, much to the chagrin of some NATO members, who said they should have been invited as well." The discussion took place outside formal NATO channels.
Some US diplomats have remarked that, while the new administration sought advice from European military and diplomatic officials during a full Afghanistan policy review, they received far less constructive feedback than they anticipated.
A senior European diplomat working on Afghanistan, contacted immediately after the White House announced its new strategy last week, stated that the new US approach was "still too militaristic."
The official, asked in light of the White House report if it were possible to do civil reconstruction in Afghanistan without more initial military security, agreed that troops were needed for this activity. Asked if troops were needed to allow houses, schools, roads, and security to be established, the official also agreed, and noted that to achieve a psychological sense of security among Afghans in villages, more troops were required.
But when asked again what in the new American assessment was faulty, the official repeated: "Too much military."