The war in Afghanistan is a war of a new kind, being waged simultaneously on the security and development fronts. The battle for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people, especially those disenfranchised communities in the southern provinces, will determine the success or failure of the mission.
But in our haste to win the support of Afghans, we forget that this is a battle that must be fought at home too. National opinion polls conducted in recent years in European countries making significant military and development aid contributions to Afghanistan – notably the UK, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, and France - point to shrinking support for the mission and a growing public sentiment that the mission is doomed.
The dramatic deterioration in the security situation is only part of the explanation. It has more to do with the European governments’ failure to convey to their citizens a clearer and more realistic vision of the mission in Afghanistan, how it is tied to our national interest and why the mission must involve both development and military efforts at the same time. We are plainly losing the battle for European hearts and minds on Afghanistan.
In the aftermath of 9/11, NATO’s intervention in Afghanistan benefited from the overwhelming support of Western public opinion. The contrast during 2003 and 2004 with the controversial Iraq war only reinforced the widely-shared view that Afghanistan was the “right war”. But since the renewed Taliban offensive in 2005, this broad support has been dangerously eroded. In a recent survey, 63% of those surveyed in France and in Britain, 66% in Italy and 69% in Germany think the war against the Taliban has been a failure. The downturn in public support is rooted in the long-standing miscalculation and miscommunication by European leaders of the real risks of the mission. They were hoping to build peace on the cheap, with a light military footprint and a focus on reconstruction rather than on tackling the largely underestimated threat of the Taliban insurgency. They were also hoping to sell the Afghanistan mission with abstract arguments about Europe’s security being played at the Hindu Kush and the Helmand desert. But a sceptical European public opinion requires better arguments to justify what is a complex, high-risk and long-term mission.
The consequences of this failure are dire. European troops and civilian experts on the front lines do not enjoy the moral support they deserve. At the same time the capacity of governments, especially in Italy and Germany, to make hard choices and strengthen or even renew their commitment to Afghanistan is now seriously limited. The problem goes wider than that, of course. The inability to build broad and genuine public support for Afghanistan calls into question Europe’s ability to defend its common security and work with its American partner.
Each European country significantly involved in Afghanistan should, as a matter of urgency, set up an independent public review of its future commitment. These would contribute to re-framing the debate on Afghanistan in more open and constructive terms than the current highly polarised “should-I-stay-or-should-I-go?” debate. The model could be the Manley commission, named after former Canadian Foreign Minister John Manley who chaired the commission that the Canadian government set up in 2007 to review the country’s future involvement in Afghanistan. It was set out to de-politicise a national debate on Afghanistan in Canada that had grown increasingly acrimonious following poor government communications and mounting fatalities. European countries should follow the Manley commission in evaluating the different options and proposing a pragmatic way forward that reflects each country’s national interest. They should also generate a substantial public discussion on why Afghanistan matters for Europeans.
Public opinion is at different stages of crisis in each European country. In every case, however, it seriously threatens Europe’s capacity to be in Afghanistan on the long-haul.
Italy is a striking example of the political cost for European governments of losing hearts and minds at home over Afghanistan. The vote in February 2007 to renew the Italian mission in Afghanistan led to the temporary collapse of the Prodi government. To have such devastating effects, a small group of extreme-left coalition partners, who on principle opposed military deployment in Afghanistan, took advantage of the government’s schizophrenic message: refusing to admit that Afghanistan is at war on one hand, whilst asking to extend the military mission on the other. Even though a vote at the Senate finally passed and Prodi recovered his job, the Italian mission was put under even more constraining terms and caveats.
Germany is another example, though less extreme, of a parliamentary democracy where the government has failed to fully acknowledge the state of war in Afghanistan in fear of losing the shaky Parliamentary support for the mission. If this approach has worked on the short run, it leaves very little capacity for more fundamental adaptations to the German commitment. Military engagement is still a controversial issue in Germany. But since the involvement of German troops in the 1999 Kosovo war, a new consensus has slowly emerged. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government, although renowned for the strength of its commitment to global issues like climate change, has not expended much political capital on making the case for German involvement in Afghanistan.
Risk-averse politics are, of course, all too normal in our modern parliamentary democracies. Nonetheless, the response from European governments has been weak and disingenuous, downplaying the seriousness of the Afghanistan mission at home while at the same time agreeing with international partners on the importance of prevailing there. This has left the public debate polarised between the equally unattractive options of withdrawing now or remaining in Afghanistan indefinitely. Both the public in Europe and the troops are left uncertainty in the middle, with little information available to the former and an unclear mission for the latter.
In the UK, the news of the deployment of British troops in Helmand, the most dangerous province, was greeted with typical public patriotism. British senior government officials nevertheless used expediency to “sell” the deployment, setting unreasonably low expectations about the nature and risks of the mission. In a revealing answer to journalists in Kabul, Britain’s then Defence Secretary John Reid told the BBC: "We would be perfectly happy to leave in three years and without firing one shot, because our job is to protect the reconstruction." Since then, his successor has fought an uphill battle against the notion that British troops are sent in unprepared, in too few numbers and ill-equipped to fight an elusive but lethal enemy in the context of a minimal development effort and a booming trade in illegal opium. This tragic under-evaluation and miscommunication left British public opinion unprepared for mounting fatalities. The British government also invited still greater confusion by presenting the Helmand mission as an opportunity to tackle the problem of illegal heroin on British streets.
Back in 2002, Prime Minister Tony Blair had reported to the House of Commons that at the G-8 summit that year he “set out detailed UK proposals for curbing opium production in Afghanistan, which is the source of some 90% of the heroin on our streets, and we agreed collectively to step up efforts to deal with this menace”. Although Afghanistan is indeed the source of most of the heroin trade in Britain, tackling its production as part of the British military mission is unlikely to address the problem of demand. Yet this simplistic argument helped the British government to reinforce support for the Afghanistan mission among Conservatives as well as Labour MPs whose urban constituencies in the north of England are particularly vulnerable to drug problems. In any case, it’s not an argument that has done much to sway public opinion in the UK. A recent survey in The Sunday Times newspaper suggested that more than half of all Britons now believe British troops should pull-out of Afghanistan.
France offers a different but telling example of Europe’s missed opportunities over Afghanistan. The long-awaited announcement by President Nicolas Sarkozy of additional troop deployments was first made on a visit to London and then at NATO’s Spring summit in Bucharest. Even though the deployment concerned only 700 additional troops, it marked a clear qualitative shift in France’s role in Afghanistan. However, the announcements were marred by confusion over the objectives of the deployment, the appraisal of the situation on the ground and regarding the political context of France’s reintegration into NATO’s military command structure. Usually supportive of troop deployments, French public opinion seemed to welcome the decision with general scepticism – 68% of the population was opposed to Sarkozy’s decision, whilst only 15% were in favor. The Socialist opposition party, whose former Prime Minister Lionel Jospin had sent in the first troops in 2001, expressed atypical opposition to the decision.
How would the public review commissions in European countries involved in Afghanistan work? Each would define more clearly the country’s interest, review the different scenarios for involvement in Afghanistan, evaluate the short and long-term risks and benefits of each option and then recommend a realistic baseline for success. Every national commission’s analysis should start from the point that Afghanistan is in a state of war, but that success can be achieved through finding a political strategy that combines both security concerns and development needs. It should not shy away from controversial but vital issues like Pakistan and broader questions of regional cooperation, as well as the narcotics issue. Each commission should be independent from official institutions, including Parliament, composed of eminent civilian and military representatives and should be chaired by a political figure who commands non-partisan respect. Ideal candidates would be former Prime Minister Giuliano Amato in Italy, former Defence Ministers Alain Richard for France and Volker Ruehe for Germany, and Lord Paddy Ashdown, former leader of the Liberal-Democrats, in the UK. Commissions should consult senior national and international policy players, and also experts and opinion formers. Each commission’s timetable should be linked to a major Parliamentary vote on Afghanistan, but should not be connected to electoral calendars to avoid becoming embroiled in partisan politics. A commission’s work should also not finish on the day it delivers its report; it should reconvene on regular basis to review progress, or the lack of it, and to keep public discussion alive and focused.
Europe badly needs to clarify its stance on Afghanistan and its role there. With a new White House occupant likely to strengthen the US focus there, Afghanistan is a test to Europe’s capacity to be a reliable and unified transatlantic partner. The Afghanistan mission has been marked in Europe by too much propaganda and too little realistic commitment. It should not become Europe’s first missed opportunity with the new U.S. Administration. It is time for European governments to show the same courage as their own troops on the ground, engage in debate, broaden the argument, set realistic expectations and regain hearts and minds at home. The EU’s much-vaunted European security and defence policy will be meaningless if it cannot adequately win the support of its citizens for, what is after all, the defining conflict of this new century.