Obama's speech on Afghanistan war: Will Europe send more troops?

President Obama's speech on Afghanistan at West Point Tuesday is expected to appeal to Europe to match his troop surge. Will Europeans provide 10,000 soldiers?

Jerome Delay/AP
In this Thursday, Nov. 19 photo, Afghan and French soldiers join Afghan elders for a shura, or consultation, on the shore of Naghlu lake, in Afghanistan's Tagab Valley.

President Obama's speech from West Point Tuesday night will be about more than convincing the American people that his decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan is in the national interest. He needs to convince allies to send 10,000 more troops of their own, a prospect that looks uncertain at the moment.

On Monday, Mr. Obama made calls to key leaders, particularly in Europe, explaining his plan. In his speech, Obama is also expected to reach out to military allies with an argument that Europe will be safer if it follows the US's lead with a troop surge of its own. Obama needs the Europeans because he is giving Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the operations commander for the Afghanistan war, 10,000 fewer troops than he requested. His advisers hope the shortfall will come from Europe.

But getting more European troops for Afghanistan is proving to be something like getting blood from a stone, as Obama learned on Monday when British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, whose country has the second-largest contingent of foreign forces in Afghanistan, approved 500 additional troops for the war after weeks of hand-wringing. Britain currently has 9,500 soldiers in Afghanistan.

France's Defense Minister Herve Morin bluntly ruled out adding to his country's 3,400 troops on Monday, saying France "has made an extremely big effort and that there is no question for now of raising numbers."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose force of 4,500 troops is the third largest in Afghanistan, said Monday she'll consider sending more troops only after an international conference on Afghanistan scheduled for London on Jan. 28.

But even if convinced then, her ability to deliver may be constrained by domestic politics, as she faces mounting opposition to the war at home, particularly since a German airstrike near Kunduz in early December killed 142 people, many of them civilians. The German defense minister at the time, Franz Josef Jung, has since resigned from her government, as has the deputy defense minister and the Army chief of staff.

Politics aside, the European allies don't have the same scope as the United States to expand operations. The combined defense budgets of Britain, Germany, and France is worth about a quarter of the US's.

Malcolm Chalmers, a former British Foreign Office policy adviser who is now an expert in defense and security policy at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a London think tank, says that with a total commitment of 10,000 troops now, Britain has probably maxed out.

"It will need to be sustained though. All the indications are that the Americans are putting pressure on other European countries. There is a recognition that we are doing much more than any of the other larger European countries but we also realize we are at the limit of what we can provide," says Mr. Chalmers.

Most reliable ally

Britain's announcement Monday that it is sending an extra 500 troops to Afghanistan's Helmand Province is the only firm commitment of additional troops so far. A senior British diplomat says his country's ability to send more is constrained by the size of its standing army, and even this trickle of new troops came packed with political choreography indicating the very real worries about declining public support for the war.

Dressed in combat fatigues, the chief of the defense staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, promised that the new British forces would have all the equipment they need. His emphasis on the fact that new Merlin helicopters recently joined Afghan operations a month ahead of schedule, and that mine-resistant Mastiff armored personnel carriers have doubled in number since August, had more than half an eye on public opinion. There has been outrage in Britain over perceived substandard equipment provided to combat troops.

Following a succession of surveys, including a YouGov poll last month that found that 57 percent of Britons thought their troops were not winning the conflict against the Taliban, unnamed senior commanders warned in a report Monday that public pessimism over Afghanistan was demoralizing soldiers.

They told The Independent that the country is in danger of "talking ourselves into a defeat back home" as the conflict reaches a critical stage.

British political and military figures are hoping, like Obama, that other European members of NATO will increase their troop contributions and take a greater share of responsibility for more difficult combat operations in Afghanistan. Prime Minister Brown said last week that other NATO countries had promised to commit 5,000 more troops in total soon, though he didn't say which countries had made these commitments.

Does 500 troops help?

Just what difference will 500 more British troops make? Chalmers says they will be significant in Helmand Province, a Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan.

"In total, there will be an uplift about 1,000 troops – a 10 percent increase – in the number of UK forces in Helmand Province, once the extra 500 troops are taken together with a transfer of reserves from Kandahar Province," he said. "The significance of the announcement revolves around the fact that there has been a dance going on in relation to the troop contribution which Gordon Brown has now said he will make."

Chalmers says that the British political leadership shares Obama's commitment to the Afghan strategy shift. "The UK underestimated the scale of the task in Afghanistan and has been playing catch-up ever since," he says. "The difficulty recently has been that we are in the last months of a Parliament and there has been a heightened temptation to make political capital out of the issue of equipment for Afghanistan."

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