The Afghanistan Complex

After years of outspoken opposition and weak commitments, many European governments are ready for another round

News | Justin McCauley | February 2010

It appears that 2010 will be a decisive year for the war in Afghanistan. After an auspicious beginning in 2001, the Afghan War stagnated as the U.S. focused its efforts and resources on the war in Iraq. Now, it seems that the U.S. and many of its European allies – although France and Germany remain hesitant, and Austria even more so – are ready to begin a final push that will hopefully get the job done in the poverty-stricken, central Asian country.

After months of deliberation, the Obama administration pledged on Dec. 1 to send 30,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan at the request of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) commander, General Stanley McChrystal, who took command in June. Earlier requests for allied support had been met with reluctance by many European governments, reflecting the hostility of most European populations following the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Increasing animosity towards U.S. foreign policy under the Bush administration derailed most U.S. attempts to create a larger European presence in region. Indeed, President Obama’s first round of requests in April left him empty handed by all except Britain.

However, following the U.S. decision, it became clear that there has been a fundamental shift in ISAF policy. The result is a new European commitment that has exceeded expectations.

Prior to the U.S. decision, NATO Secretary-General Anders Rasmussen estimated a figure of 5,000, according to the Christian Science Monitor. On Dec. 4, NATO pledged an additional 7,000 troops, which will bring the level of non-U.S. personnel to 49,000. The largest contributors are NATO members Britain, bringing its troop levels to 9,500; Italy, providing an additional 1,000 to its 2,800; and Poland, increasing to 2,600. Georgia, not a NATO member, will increase its troops to 1,000, and NATO member Slovakia is doubling its presence.

Germany and France, NATO’s largest European member countries, postponed their decisions until after the Afghanistan conference in London, held on Jan. 28. The conference resulted in a renewed commitment to training Afghan security forces, providing greater and more coordinated development assistance, and applying a program to reintegrate insurgents and militants into state and society. In addition, sub-national governance was stressed – taking into account Afghan society’s tribal structure – and counter-narcotics operations will be increased alongside counter-terrorism ops.

German apprehensions over casualties were heightened by a controversial air strike called in by German troops last September, which resulted in the deaths of 60-70 civilians. But after London, Germany announced that they would send an additional 500 troops to its area of operations in northern provinces of Kunduz and Badakhshan. However, "France will not send another single soldier," said President Sarkozy in a recent statement, trumping speculation that France was planning to send up to 5,000 more soldiers in 2010. But the almost 4,000 French soldiers currently operating in Kapisa Province are not going to be withdrawn any time soon, and Sarkozy is still open to sending non-combat elements for further police training.

Of the 42 nations making up ISAF, 12 are non-NATO members, including Austria. In addition to the NATO commitment of 7,000, the U.S. has made appeals to ISAF’s non-NATO members, hoping to round off the non-U.S. increase to 10,000.

The Austrian contribution during the Afghan War has been minimal, to say the least. In 2002, Austria sent 60 soldiers to support the newly formed ISAF, reaching a high of 93 in 2005, during the Afghan elections. Currently there are between 2 and 4 soldiers altogether stationed in the Afghan capital Kabul as observers, serving in administrative roles and assisting in low-level, low-risk security tasks. Austrian forces have suffered no fatalities.

A recent spat over Austria’s commitment to the Afghan mission emerged in December between U.S. Ambassador William Eacho and Austrian Defense Minister Norbert Darabos, who described Eacho’s efforts as "a little improper."

American officials’ attempts to coax Austria into sending more troops were "sometimes relatively strong and partly indecent," he told the Austrian daily Der Standard on Dec. 18. As a sovereign country, Austria would not buckle under pressure from the superpower, he said, also implicating British officials.  Eacho responded with a letter to the Austrian daily, stating that his pursuit and defense of American interests was part of his job as U.S. ambassador and in no way "improper." Austria could increase its contribution through non-military means, he added, such as assistance in "development, governance, and rule of law."

This message was apparently received, as Eacho told The Vienna Review on Jan. 25 that Austria is sending a 12-man civilian training group to assist with police training. Eacho stated that the effort is welcomed and that it is "symbolic" of Austria’s support of the Afghan effort, however "more would be appreciated."

Criticism of Austria’s commitment has not come just from the Americans and British. According to the New York-based quarterly Foreign Policy, the European Council on Foreign Relations released a report in 2008 describing Austria as "perhaps the greatest laggard" in troop contributions. With countries like Iceland (with no military at all) maintaining a greater presence, it is easy to understand the criticism.

But Austria’s dedication to neutrality – established in the1955 State Treaty that formally ended the post-war four-power occupation – cannot be underestimated. With constitutional neutrality superceded by EU membership in 1995, Austria has little problem providing troops for EU or UN peacekeeping forces, illustrated by its renewed commitment to peacekeeping missions in Chad, Kosovo and the Golan Heights.

However the tradition runs deep, and it is likely that the Austrian government has great misgivings about being part of a multinational, openly military force such as ISAF. Conceptually speaking, Austrian soldiers are peacekeepers, not warriors.

This concept is not exclusive to Austria. In the decades after the Second World War, the omnipresence of an all-powerful American military omitted the need for strong, offense-oriented European armies. The American security guarantee allowed Europeans to focus their time and funds on social and economic issues. This concept was taken to heart nowhere more so than in "neutral" states like Sweden, Switzerland and Austria.

But the U.S. and others do not see this as a sufficient reason for being so marginally involved. With peacekeeping as its military’s raison d’être, any Austrian troops would be assigned non-combat roles like many European forces, thus freeing up combat units for offensive operations targeting the Taliban and Al-Qaeda insurgency. These combat units – primarily American, British, Canadian and Australian – understand the importance of the non-combat missions of humanitarian support, engineering and the training of Afghan police and military conducted by their European allies.

Indeed, success depends on equally strong dedication to both the war-fighting and nation-building elements of Gen. McChrystal’s counter-insurgency strategy.

It is essentially a numbers and distribution game – many regions in Afghanistan are only marginally touched by the conflict; the German areas in the north and the Italian areas in the west, for instance, are relatively peaceful. The military conflict that rages on exists primarily in the American areas in the east and in the Helmand and Kandahar provinces in the south where British and Canadian troops operate. Troop increases will further free up combat soldiers, allowing them more effectively fight terrorism and the narcotics trade.

In addition, as Eacho pointed out, the areas where U.S. and NATO troops are most popular are where they have the greatest presence – this is a result of the effective security situation the soldiers have created for Afghan civilians. In short, increasing numbers increases security, which in turn enhances popular support.

Many European governments have embraced this division of labor, particularly the French and Germans. There is a general consensus about the importance of succeeding in Afghanistan, which has prompted large contributions from dozens of nations. However as the AFP observes, "there are fewer Austrian soldiers in Afghanistan than Austrian flags at ISAF headquarters." Austria’s commitment to this shared effort is so minute that some wonder if it serves any purpose at all.

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