The idea is still largely rhetorical, with senior European officials describing ongoing needs to help Afghans build their state and work toward peace.
But in light of Mr. bin Laden's death, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé said today that France will "take some time to reflect, to see what conclusions can be drawn over the coming months from what has just happened." Mr. Juppé, addressing reporters after meeting with the Pakistani prime minister in Paris, said early withdrawal has not been excluded.
Many French security analysts agree that troop departure should be on the table. Christophe Jaffrelot, a senior research fellow at the Center for International Studies and Research, suggested, “European and American interests converge as a result of [bin Laden’s] death. In other words, when can we pull the plug in Afghanistan? It is a good excuse, one more reason to ask, ‘OK, what is the goal in Afghanistan?' "
France and Italy each have about 4,000 troops deployed in Afghanistan. Germany has 5,000, Poland has 2,500, and Spain has 1,500. The Dutch contingent has already been drawn down to some 200. The US has some 90,000 troops deployed following a “surge” by the White House designed to set the pace for an eventual draw down.
If France presses for an early pullout, it will likely face opposition within Europe. NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said today that, "As far as Bin Laden is concerned, it doesn't mean that our operation in Afghanistan will change. We shall stay the course in Afghanistan."
The Afghan war had strong support in Europe immediately after 9/11, with governments participating partly to bolster NATO unity and partly to help the Afghans. But following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 – controversial in Europe and opposed by France – a perception developed here of diminished US emphasis on Afghanistan, and ardor for troops in the Hindu Kush waned. The “global war on terror” became seen as an amorphous fight without end. The Taliban's regrouping and offensives led to questions about exit.
The election of President Obama was seen as a step toward eventual withdrawal, now slated for 2014. British casualties have made the war unpopular, and the 2010 International Conference on Afghanistan in London was seen partly as a way of transferring security responsibility to the government of Hamid Karzai. European analysts in the past year have increasingly compared the conflict with the Vietnam War.
The war was unpopular enough in the Netherlands to bring a government down in 2010 over a dispute of deploying troops; Germans have only in the past year been defining their deployment in terms of fighting rather than peacekeeping; the rout and killing of a dozen French troops in 2008 brought home how unpopular the deployment was here.
Yet the price of departure and the US “surge” under Obama has kept the operation gamely moving forward.
Bin Laden’s last recorded video singled out France for its recent policies designed to restrict the burqa, or full-length veil, worn by many orthodox Muslim women. In response, President Nicolas Sarkozy stated that France would "not let anyone, and certainly not terrorists, dictate its policy.”
Both ruling party and Socialist members of the French parliament have spoken of reducing numbers of troops since the US announcement of a successful raid against bin Laden in Pakistan.