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.

Joel Saget/AP
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.

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.

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.”

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.

“There is no appetite to repeat such lengthy and expensive conflict that result in such huge loss of life,” said Wolfgang Ischinger, head of the International Munich Security Conference, one of the world's largest gatherings of national security officials, on the eve of this past winter’s conference. “A new era is beginning with a greater measure of critical self restraint regarding the use of military resources.”

Faced with huge deficits and war-weary publics, European governments, from powerhouse Germany to comparatively minor player Bulgaria, have taken steps to slim down their militaries, including closing bases, canceling orders for new military equipment, and abandoning efforts to modernize aging arsenals. Many countries feel there is plenty of room to trim without eroding their defense capabilities. 

The greatest military restructuring has been in Germany. Its past as an aggressor and its own reluctance to fight kept Germany’s military confined to peacekeeping missions for decades, and the NATO mission in Afghanistan – in which Germany has the third largest troop presence – is the first time since World War II that German soldiers have had a combat role.

The mission showed how ill-trained and equipped its soldiers were. Using the momentum of a mandate to cut €8.3 billion ($10.4 billion) from his budget between 2010 and 2015, then defense minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg pushed a massive overhaul designed to make the army “leaner and more efficient.” He ended the draft and proposed a plan to close 31 of the country's 328 military bases, among other things. 

Learning to trust

Few dispute the merits of the overhaul, and even defense spending cuts are not that controversial. What defense experts see as problematic is that the decision was made without consultation of or coordination with NATO or the European Union – a process repeated throughout Europe.

"Every member state is cutting armed forces without transparency and consultation, without an architectural idea for what will be left," Witney says.

Countries are making the decisions mostly autonomously. There is no understanding of who has what and no overarching vision for European defense going forward. Why is it, ask experts, that European military leaders are still trained at 27 different military schools, or that there are so many different types of aircraft in the countries' individual air forces? 

In part it is because countries cling to their ability to determine their defense capabilities and have different understandings of the importance of a robust military. In the smallest European Union countries, defense budgets have been cut by as much as a quarter, but Sweden and Poland, for instance, have continued to fuel their military. 

“Cooperation is a difficult topic because it means giving up areas of sovereignty – you have to resign on some of your capabilities, to trust the partner,” says Justyna Gotkowska of the Center for Eastern Studies in Warsaw. “This trust isn’t there yet. It is starting but it will be difficult,” she says.

Witney calls on heads of governments to initiate the pooling and sharing of their military resources. “'We'll buy your submarines if you buy our tanks,” he says, describing an example of a way European countries could complement each other. "If one nation makes tanks better and cheaper, another can close its tank factory.”

A review of each member state's defense and security strengths and weaknesses would be a good starting point, experts say.

But despite a commitment on paper to a common defense and security strategy, European countries are “still in a phase where countries cling to their defense abilities,” Mr. Riecke of the German Council on Foreign Relations says. 

“There is a certain amount of political will to cooperate that is not yet translated into action. But as the financial pressure is in, that could change,” he says. 

US to Europe: Step it up

While conflicts within Europe are unlikely, there is always the potential for upheaval caused by events outside the region – a possibility that is especially worrying to a less militarized Europe as the United States’ reorients itself away from Europe and toward Southeast Asia.

Earlier this year the Obama administration announced the withdrawal of two heavy armor brigades from Germany, which will reduce the number of US Army troops there from 42,000 today to 37,000 by 2015. It will also leave the United States with only two Army bases on the continent: one in Germany and one in Italy. The US Army had 277,000 soldiers in Europe in 1962, at the height of the cold war.

The 2011 NATO intervention in Libya underscored Europeans’ dependence on the US. Although Europeans took command of a NATO mission for the first time, the US provided most of the logistics, equipment, and intelligence, and the US now foots 75 percent of the NATO bill.

In Brussels last year, former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates lashed out at Europe for not doing enough to pay for its own defense.

"The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the US Congress – and in the American body politic writ large – to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense,” Mr. Gates said.

“Indeed, if current trends in the decline of European defense capabilities are not halted and reversed, future US political leaders...may not consider the return on America's investment in NATO worth the cost," he concluded.

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