As President Obama ponders troops to leave Afghanistan, so does Europe

Associated Press and Associated Press

LONDON- President Barack Obama’s delay in deciding U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan has found an echo chamber in Europe, where coalition leaders in NATO are weighing whether to send more help or bow to public demands for a speedy exit.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told The Associated Press yesterday that allied nations have privately pledged more help, but he stopped short of saying that countries would send more troops.

Canada, Finland and the Netherlands have either pulled troops out or set withdrawal dates. Other countries, such as Denmark, Italy, Germany, Norway and Sweden, say they will maintain current troop levels but have no immediate plans to increase them. Only Britain and Turkey have made significant pledges, and Turkey – a Muslim country – has committed noncombat personnel only.

‘We have already received quite a number of pledges,’ Rasmussen told the AP after talks with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. ‘Based on this principle of solidarity, I think all allies will follow suit – one way or the other.’

It was unclear how many pledges had been made or whether assistance would be in the form of troops, trainers or other resources.

The U.S.-led mission that began in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks has become increasingly difficult to sell – more troops are dying, fewer known terror plots are being traced back to Afghanistan and questions are being raised why Europeans are asked to die for a corrupt and inefficient government in Kabul that shows little signs of wanting to change.

Obama’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, recently sent cables in which he warned against dispatching large numbers of U.S. troops – an apparent rebuff of NATO Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s call for some 30,000 more troops.

Such disagreements between diplomats and military commanders haven’t inspired confidence among coalition leaders or the public.

‘We’ve got the American ambassador to Kabul saying, ‘Don’t escalate,’ and we’ve got the chief commander on the ground saying ‘Give us 40,000 more,” said Michael Cox, an expert in trans-Atlantic relations at the London School of Economics.

‘The delay, and the obvious evidence of division, is not going to encourage a lot of Europeans to put more people on the ground. They’re already thinking the Americans are feeling their way toward withdrawal, and public opinion has gone very soft on Afghanistan.’

Central to the public wariness with Afghanistan is the notion that it is no longer seen as a simple fight of right against wrong.

The recent Afghan election was deeply flawed, drawing attention to rampant corruption. Brown and other Western leaders warned President Hamid Karzai that he cannot count on continued support until he moves to stamp out corruption.

‘It’s like liberating Italy from the Nazis and then handing it over to the Mafia to run,’ said Labour lawmaker Paul Flynn.

Britain is in an awkward position. With 9,000 troops in Afghanistan, it is the second largest contributor to the international coalition behind the United States, and it has long been criticized for being too closely aligned with American foreign policy interests. London’s decision to join the U.S.-led war in Iraq cost the Labour-led government a significant share of parliamentary seats in the last elections.

Some 232 British soldiers have died in Afghanistan since 2001. Families and military commanders have blamed deaths on a lack of equipment, and there has been growing criticism that Brown has failed to show tangible benefits of the mission.

The deaths of five British soldiers shot to death last week by an Afghan police officer trained by allied forces were branded as a betrayal in Britain.

Parts of the volatile Helmand province where the soldiers were shot could be handed over as early as next summer, Brown and Rasmussen said – a plan backed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

‘We need to train and educate Afghan soldiers and police with the aim to hand over responsibility to the Afghans themselves – province by province as capacity develops,’ Rasmussen said. ‘This is the reason why we need more resources for our training mission. Right now, the Afghan security forces do not have the capacity.’

Brown has little to gain politically by offering false hope to an anxious public. Polls indicate his Labour-led government will lose to the Conservatives in an election next year and he will likely be on his way out before any lasting Afghan hand-over can take place.

Other leaders have more to lose.

France, which was stung last year when 10 of its soldiers were killed in an ambush, said it is willing to send personnel to train Afghan forces but has not committed further troops. Additional losses could pose problems ahead of key regional elections in March.

Italy has also felt pressure to withdraw its roughly 2,800 troops after six soldiers were killed in a roadside bombing in September.

Richard C. Holbrooke, Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, left late Wednesday for Berlin. He will go on subsequently to Paris and Moscow.

If Obama decides against sending more troops, Europe will likely see that as a sign to scale back or chart withdrawals.

‘If he sends more troops … the Europeans will probably figure they would stay committed at present levels but I doubt that him sending more troops will result in large numbers of increased troops from the allies,’ said Mike Williams, a foreign policy researcher at Royal Holloway University of London.

While public sentiment in Europe is turning against the war, some people remain torn.

‘I want our troops out of there as soon as possible, but I don’t think it’s stable enough for us to leave right now, said Steve Kibble, a 54-year-old salesman from the northern English town of Birmingham. ‘I’m not against sending more troops but I’m concerned with the amount of troops coming back in wooden boxes.’