After Afghanistan

The Afghan experience will leave Europe?s armed forces drained and in search of a new purpose. Insufficient political will and empty state coffers will hamper rejuvenation

Senior Policy Fellow

This piece was originally published in E!Sharp’s September-October 2009 edition.  

However
the Afghan war ends, Europe’s militaries will
emerge exhausted. Even if NATO creates stability, the United States
will take most of the credit.

While
the Obama administration has ramped up its forces, something very much like
defeatism has spread across European capitals. The Netherlands is committed to
withdraw next year. British generals have been blisteringly frank about the
campaign’s corrosive effect on the army.

It
is hard to imagine that more than a fraction of the 35,000 European troops now
in Afghanistan
will be there in three or four years. Perhaps, as in Iraq, some trainers will stay on.
But if 2001 to 2011 will go down in European military histories as the Afghan
decade (as the 1990s were defined by the Balkans) it is time to look ahead to
the next chapter.

Some
commentators doubt that there will be another chapter – at least not one worth
reading. Europe’s military outlook is
horrible. Public appetite for new operations is minimal. The recession is
cutting into defence budgets. European cooperation on big-ticket projects like
the Eurofighter and A400M transport aircraft has been riddled with setbacks.

As
the last European troops return home from Afghanistan, they may be headed for
a quiet life in barracks – without the money, kit or political will for
long-range operations.

But
defeats can have unexpected consequences. In the 1970s – having gone through a
trauma over Vietnam far
worse than NATO’s experience in Afghanistan
– American military intellectuals began to develop revolutionary concepts and
weaponry. More recently, Europe’s Balkan
peacekeeping failures stimulated cooperation on EU defence.

Similarly,
severe setbacks in Iraq
after 2003 led General David Petraeus and his allies to rewrite US
counter-insurgency doctrine. Most European officers are yet to catch up.

But
the growing sense of failure in Afghanistan
has sparked a new wave of debate on military policy in the European Union, most
strikingly in Britain.
This debate has not permeated everywhere – in parts of Brussels,
it is deemed impolite to suggest that anything is really that bad in Afghanistan –
but it is likely to gather pace as the Afghan adventure ends.

It
might just rejuvenate European defence thinking. And some serious rejuvenation
is required. The great post-Cold War European security debate – over whether to
prioritise NATO and the transatlantic alliance or the Union’s
defence identity – is agonisingly repetitive. Recent events suggest that it may
also be a fuss about nothing. Those who insisted on sticking close to Washington now face the
reality that many American commanders view European troops as (at best) a
quaint distraction.

Yet
the strongest advocates of EU defence – meaning, of course, the French – also feel
let down. European operations in places like Chad
and Congo
have been limited in scale and ambition. Neither NATO nor the EU currently
seems very relevant to the balance of power in emerging geopolitical hot-spots
in the Indian and Pacific
Oceans.

So
the NATO/EU debate may soon move to a close – not because either side won, but
because it is getting silly. Fundamental questions about the type of wars
Europeans need to fight in the post-Afghan era are rising up the agenda
instead, with three schools of military thinkers emerging: New Cold Warriors,
Small War Specialists and Power Projectors.

The
New Cold Warriors focus on the threat from a resurgent Russia – and point to Moscow’s
unsophisticated but effective 2008 assault on Georgia as a model for future
fights. Nobody believes that Russia
has the forces to launch a full-scale invasion of Europe
anymore. But it can still use “salami tactics”: slicing off bits of territory
on its borders, as it has with Abkhazia and South Ossetia,
and piling pressure on its neighbours.

These
fears are common not only among former members of the Warsaw Pact but also in Finland and Sweden. Security analysts in Stockholm and Helsinki
are talking about deeper security cooperation – or even joining NATO, although
public support is limited. Most New Cold Warriors recognise the financial and
civilian aid to fragile states on Russia’s borders is a more
effective way to fight “salami tactics” than troops alone.

The
Small War Specialists are also interested in mixing civilian and military tools
– but to tackle insurgents and militias in weak and failing states. They
believe that, even if Europeans may not want to fight counter-insurgency wars
like Afghanistan
again, they may have little choice. That does not have to mean fighting far-off
wars: there is evidence of al-Qaeda buying friends and gaining influence in
weak states in North Africa.

Small
War Specialists want to ensure Europe will
have light and mobile forces able to move in and hit the bad guys as fast as
possible – plus a cadre of civilian specialists able to start cleaning up the
mess. Sweden,
taking advantage of its EU presidency, is aiming to push other member states to
provide more civilians to help rebuild former war zones.

For
the Power Projectors, a narrow focus on counter-insurgency and state-building
is a hangover from Afghanistan
and the Balkans and ignores looming strategic shifts. These include China and India’s growing spending on
high-tech military hardware. While the Small War Specialists want to
concentrate military spending on helicopters and body armour, the Power
Projectors prefer aircraft carriers, long-range fighters and submarines.

At
present, the Small War Specialists dominate public debate, not only because of
events in Afghanistan
but because finance ministries tremble at high-cost defence spending. But a
crisis elsewhere – like an Iranian attempt to close shipping lanes in the Gulf
as tensions rise with the West – could shift attention to the Power Projectors.
If Russia uses force again
in the Caucasus, the New Cold Warriors will
come to the fore. While some observers believe that “NATO’s Afghan defeat means
the end of European defence too”, it is equally likely that unpleasant
surprises elsewhere will spark new security initiatives.

Not
all EU members are likely to join in these initiatives with equal enthusiasm.
Some, like Ireland and Austria, feel
the pull of more traditional UN peacekeeping. Others, like Germany, may
prefer to absent themselves from military debate altogether.

There
is a risk that other EU members may split off in different directions. Eastern
European countries will focus more resolutely on Russia. Mediterranean countries,
looking nervously southwards, may emphasise preparedness for the next small
wars.

Former
naval heavyweights like France,
the Netherlands and Britain might still want to play Power
Projectors – although all will face budget trouble, and a Conservative victory
in next year’s British elections would reduce London’s influence over European defence.

But
if European defence priorities diverge, none are likely to be met.

Recent
efforts to facilitate EU security cooperation, such as the European
Commission’s drive to open up the defence procurement market, would go to
waste. The US would look to
other allies – such as Australia,
which plans increased military spending – to help in future crises.

It
is too early for EU leaders to say openly, “yes, we’re losing Afghanistan, so
what comes after that?” But they should be quietly commissioning and sharing
studies of just that question.

Britain’s
wartime leader Winston Churchill described his best general, Bernard
Montgomery, as “insufferable in victory” but “indomitable in retreat”. Europe is often insufferable about its importance in
world affairs. Now may be the time to see how well we can manage retreat.

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

Author

Senior Policy Fellow

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