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U.S., Allies at Odds Again Over Afghanistan


By Richard Walker

While the U.S. prepares to send at least 25,000 more troops to Afghanistan, many European allies are refusing to follow suit. Some are even considering reducing the numbers of soldiers they have on the battlefield.

That is just one example of the ways in which Europeans differ from the Obama administration in planning a strategy for Afghanistan. Another is that Germany and France would like to see what has loosely been termed “a contact group” of countries leading the way to a solution of the conflict. The “contact group” would include Russia and China, thereby involving the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. Membership would also be extended to Pakistan and Iran, which border Afghanistan, and to India which, in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai last November, has taken a keen interest in events in Afghanistan.

The concept of expanding the range of countries involved in the Afghan war was first proposed at a NATO summit in 2006 by former French President Jacques Chirac. It found favor with Germany, which argued it was better to have more hands at the wheel. The U.S. delegation at the summit, led by then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, angrily opposed
the idea and warned that it would create a command structure that lacked focus. From Washington’s perspective, the proposal risked ceding U.S. policy in the region to China and Russia. In the end, Miss Rice convinced the summit to abandon the proposal.


Lately, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has resurrected it amid reports that she and French President Nicholas Sarkozy see it as a way of lessening the burden of the Afghan war on NATO. Following Barack Obama’s inauguration, Ms. Merkel indicated she was not in favor of sending more German troops to Afghanistan, signaling that a new strategy was required. France has said it is reluctant to increase its 2,600 contingent and other E.U. nations like Holland want to reduce their troop commitment. In Britain too, there is growing disquiet about the war but the Labor government is unlikely to support the “contact group” strategy if the Obama administration, like its predecessor, opposes it. However, senior political figures have publicly expressed concerns about the war.

Recently Lord Ashdown, leader of the Liberal Democrats, who served with the British army in Northern Ireland, criticized the “international community” for having no clear plan for Afghanistan. He said it was “a scandal, wasting the lives” of young men and women on the front lines. He issued a dire warning that if NATO did not come up with a victory plan soon the war against the Taliban could be lost. He added that commanders on the ground had agreed with him that NATO had failed to take advantage of its victories against the Taliban.

So, even if Germany and France cannot push through the 2006 Chirac initiative to widen responsibility for the war, there will still be major disagreements between the U.S. and some of its allies over battlefield strategy and the political future of the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai.

With Afghan elections scheduled for this year, there have been leaked reports that the Obama administration is not a fan of Karzai because it believes he has failed to eradicate corruption in his government, thereby weakening the political process. It is said the U.S. would prefer a coalition of his peers to run the country and set a new example for governance. Some of his political opponents have already told Washington that they intend to oppose him and would like the U.S. to publicly state that it would prefer him to step down.

Karzai has detected the growing opposition from Washington and from Pakistan, a nation he has consistently blamed for many of his country’s ills. But, he feels confident that, while he is supported by France and Germany, his tenure as president is secure and he will be re-elected president. Much to the annoyance of Pakistan, he has established close ties to India, a big player in the region that has Washington’s ear. Lately, he has shrewdly played to the growing clamor among his own people for tighter controls on NATO operations and especially on raids by U.S. Special Forces.

In several public statements he pointed to the fact the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan found that 400 civilians were killed in air raids last year. In many instances, the air power was called in by Special Forces teams that had found themselves outgunned. Karzai has constantly demanded more accountability from NATO for civilian casualties and in doing so has enhanced his image with Afghans. He also knows that as a Pashtun his departure from power would be viewed by his tribe as a slight by Washington.

One other area in which the U.S. and its allies may differ in the months ahead is in the prosecution of the war. The fact more U.S. troops will be on the battlefield will see Washington calling the shots when it comes to deciding military strategy. As a consequence, it will not favor, as some Europeans do, the Karzai principle that the Afghan military should be consulted about all NATO operations and given advance warning about proposed Special Forces raids. Put simply, the U.S. military feels it cannot trust its Afghan counterparts with sensitive intelligence.

There is also a disagreement among NATO members about using a tactic from the Iraq war, namely creating militias and paying tribal elders to fight the Taliban. The aim is to create a type of “Afghan Awakening” to mirror the way Sunni militias were paid to fight al-Qaeda in Anbar province in Iraq.

Afghan president, Hamid Karzai is opposed to the use of militias, arguing that there are enough weapons in the country without adding more to the mix. In contrast, Lord Ashdown supports the U.S. strategy of militias and the surge of more U.S. combat troops but he remains convinced that many countries are not pulling their weight. He claims the “international community,” by which he means the U.S. and its NATO allies, is merely trying to stabilize Afghanistan rather than planning to win the war. He points to the fact that only 1/25th of the military and 1/50th of the aid that was used in the Bosnian conflict is now being committed to the Afghan war.

If he is right, and there is no reason to doubt him because he was the international high representative in Bosnia for four years, the Obama administration will have to think carefully if it wants to win the Afghan war.

By Ashdown’s calculations, winning would require a troop surge of immense proportions, which is a strategy America’s NATO allies will not support.

Therefore, can the goal for President Obama be to win the war or should he simply seek to stabilize Afghanistan and plan for an exit within a decade? While the president ponders those options he might also want to keep a close eye on Pakistan, which is steadily becoming mired in terror generated by an unchecked Taliban, which is asserting itself throughout the country. In 2008, the Taliban killed more people in Pakistan than they killed in Afghanistan. More worrying, for the U.S. and its allies is the realization that Pakistan is a nuclear nation.

Richard Walker is the pen name of a former news producer.

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(Issue # 6, February 9, 2009)

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