Europe must support Obama’s surge – but with one joint string attached

President Obama’s surge deserves European backing. But in return, EU governments should demand an international commission, like the Iraq Study Group, to develop a political strategy and report back in a year

Today at West Point, Barack Obama will finally graduate from his role as a candidate, who ran on a campaign pledge to withdraw troops from Iraq, to that of a “War President”, whose success in office will be determined by progress against Al Qaeda in the Hindu Kush. In this, Obama will begin looking more and more like his predecessor, whose name became synonymous with the Iraq War. To be more successful on the battlefield and to avoid the stigmata of war, President Obama will need European allies. They should be clear about what they want in return for backing a US surge with additional troops; an international commission, like the Iraq Study Group, which can examine all the necessary options, develop a political strategy, and report back in a year.

The US president is expected to add approximately 30,000 troops to the NATO mission. White House officials hope NATO allies will supplement the buildup with up to 10,000 of their own troops and trainers, to make up the shortfall on the 40,000 additional troops General Stanley McChrystal, the NATO commander in Kabul, says are needed to counter the resurgent Taliban. A few days ago, the powerful chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee said he hoped that “about half” of the requested troops would come from other NATO allies.

So far, at least eight other countries are expected to follow the US administration, including Britain, Turkey, Australia, Slovakia, Montenegro, and Georgia. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the NATO Secretary-General, has been particularly upbeat; on NATO’s website, he recently posted a videoblog promising “significant more forces” and a counter-insurgency strategy that puts the local population at its centre.

But President Obama is likely to expect more from his European allies; and EU governments know that while the Obama administration began with a philosophical commitment to multilateral cooperation, it wants real partners in a world that it no longer dominates. As my colleagues Jeremy Shapiro and Nick Witney have argued, the US knows it can turn to China on economic issues and Russia on nuclear disarmament, but is not yet sure it can turn to Europe on security matters.

That may strike many EU leaders as unfair. NATO’s mission have seen the deployment of more European troops from more NATO countries than at any time since the end of the Bosnian War in the 1990s. Many European countries have suffered a high number of casualties. Public pressure is also piling up on many NATO allies. In Britain, polls shows 35% believe troops should come home. Similar results would turn up in polls across the alliance. If Canada and the Netherlands follow through on commitments to withdraw troops from NATO’s mission in 2011 and 2012 respectively, many other NATO governments would come under intense pressure to do the same. As a precursor of things to come, the Danish opposition is trying to push the government into setting a 2012 deadline for Denmark’s deployment.

Fair or not, difficult or not, President Obama will likely come looking for more support all the same. The question is whether EU states should do what they have done until now, i.e. fall over themselves to cut bilateral deals in a competition for US favour (but get little say over the over-all strategy in return); or offer the troops that the US administration wants (in return for strategic input).

If EU states are wise enough to choose the latter, they should ask President Obama to accept that the multidimensional crisis now engulfing the Kabul government cannot be addressed through a military surge, however large, well-conceived and executed. Unlike just three years ago, the crisis can probably not be resolved by the use of developmental tools either. For that, the situation has gone too far; the hastily-prepared London event, scheduled for late January 2010, will have only a palliative effect.

At this stage, a military and civilian surge, even one involving 40.000 troops, may only be able to contain the situation, at considerable human and financial costs; it cannot defeat Taliban. Nor can a successful strategy be based on the assumption that a new Karzai government will be more capable and trusted by the population than the previous one. Rather, EU governments should demand a reconsideration of objectives and the development of a political solution, which can help bring stability.

To develop impartial thinking along this track, EU governments should ask for an international commission, modelled on the International Commission on the Balkans or the Iraq Study Group, to be established to provide perspective and new ideas for debate. Such a commission, numbering at least a dozen senior international figures drawn from a range of countries and professions (including the US, Europe and Middle East) and lead by a ex-statesman/women could hear advice from experts, undertake study tours and produce report in time for the international conference planned for spring 2010.

There is no telling whether an Iraq Study Group-style commission will be able to come up with a roadmap, which can bring the Kabul government and parts of the Taliban insurgency into a political process. But it is worth trying to set a process in motion, which can begin laying out a more political strategy. It will also put useful pressure on President Karzai – who will fret that it may deliver a negative verdict on his post-election performance. With all  other options tried by next year, EU governments would be wise to back this one in return for additional troops.

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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