Don’t mention the war

European defence chiefs should help improve the EU’s lacklustre performance in Afghanistan

When European Defence Ministers meet in their monthly conclave today, many the world’s hot-spots will be under discussion. The European Union now has a military mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a police-and-justice operation in Kosovo and a deployment to Chad about to begin.

Besides operations, the other big issue will be defence cooperation. France intends to use its EU presidency in the latter half of the year to re-launch the EU’s defence cooperation. Even though Britain is unlikely to agree on a St. Malo-style summit, ten years after the original, the Elysee hopes for some progress.

The one issue that will not be under discussion is the one country where more European troops are deployed and more Europeans have died than in all other missions put together. The mission is Afghanistan.

The problems are well known. The rule of Hamid Karzai’s government extends only weakly outside of Kabul. The Taliban insurgency will continue to grow stronger as winter ends. And despite the billions of euros spent, most ordinary Afghans have yet to see the benefits in terms of security, access to justice and delivery of basic services.

These difficulties are exacerbated by European and American policy disagreements. Washington wants more troops and trainers from its allies. But many Europeans feel that the mission has become entirely different than the peacekeeping operation they signed up to.

In Europe, only Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark and Poland remain steadfast and willing to operate in the insurgency-plagued south. Of the other military-capable powers, Germany, Italy and Spain prefer to stay in the north. France is willing to deploy more troops, but they are unlikely to be of the scale required.

Common to all is a concern that the U.S is treating a political problem like a military one. This is unfair, up to a point. The U.S spends more money on aid than all other partners. In the east, a clever counter-insurgency campaign, which has sought to emphasise political outreach and reconstruction, seems to be turning things around.

But despite this, there is reluctance to compel the Afghan government to re-launch negotiations with the Taliban: since President Karzai threw out two diplomats for allegedly negotiating with the Taliban and his blocking of Paddy Ashdown’s appointment as UN envoy, little progress has been made.

In spite of the problems and what a French official described as a “vacuum” in the international community’s Afghan policy, EU defence chiefs will stay clear of the issue. This is a NATO mission, not an EU affair. But as British Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home said, when he had to fly from Copenhagen to Brussels as the EU pretended its political cooperation was separate from its economic links: “I may have two hats, but I only have one head.” The EU ministers may not be in charge of the mission, but Europe’s contribution matters and needs to be improved.

In this, Germany is the boulder blocking the stream. If Germany decides to deploy more troops and trainers, allowing these to move from the quite north to the east or south, Italy is likely to follow. But in Berlin, there is a stalemate between Angela Merkel’s CDU and the Social Democrats. Nobody wants to make the first move and be accused of risking German soldiers. Suspicion of U.S-led missions, even one authorised by the UN and plainly in Germany’s interest, runs deep.

If historians are not to look back on early 2008 as the time when the West “lost” Afghanistan, then drastic action is required. But what to do?

First, European countries should commit to sending more troops, trainers and civilians to Afghanistan, as well as lifting “caveats” on its troops. The mission needs a considerable troop increase, more military and police trainers and more military equipment, including helicopters.

If European NATO allies will not deliver this, then the U.S. needs to do so itself. Detailed estimates are best left to military planners, but more than 10,000 troops extra are probably needed to cover the southern provinces.

Second, a strategic shift is required away from combat operations to human security. Such a strategy means focusing more attention on ordinary Afghans, gradually expanding NATO’s security presence outward from population centers, and working hand-in-glove with state and local authorities. It is true that the Afghan government is best-placed to deliver services, including security, but the state and its local outposts are not ready to do so. The challenge is to deliver services in a way that builds local capacity; not to think the Afghans can do everything (as some development workers seem to believe) or to do everything for them (as some military officers believe).

This new strategy would be strengthened if the international community abandoned the current counter-narcotics policy and helped President Karzai reach a political settlement with “moderate” insurgents. Deal-making will be controversial, but current efforts are ineffective. The policy needs to be rethought.

All of this will require leadership that cuts across institutional boundaries, which can be provided only by the U.N. and a strong-willed individual. While the U.N., NATO and EU balked at “triple-hatting” Paddy Ashdown any new envoy would have to be offered the “full Monty”. Nothing else would signal that the U.S-led coalition is serious about regaining the initiative.

In Afghanistan, all is not lost. For one, elections in neighbouring Pakistan may be beneficial as the Islamists seemed to have lost in many border provinces. But turning the situation around will require changing the way the international community operates.

A package that includes political, military and civilian elements is needed to bring Germany and other Europeans on board. As a first step, EU defence ministers ought to begin talking about what such a deal could look like. When most of them meet again with their NATO “hats” on, perhaps an approach could be hashed out that their bosses – heads of governments – could endorse at NATO’s Bucharest Summit. Failure to do so will hurt not only NATO, but the EU too. Hats may be aplenty, but nobody has, as Douglas-Home said, more than one head.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

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