Given the content of his new strategy on Afghanistan, what kind of commitment is President Obama looking for from America’s European Allies?

President Obama expects European allies to contribute to the war effort by sending in the neighborhood of 5,000 extra combat troops. Getting Europe behind his strategy is a political imperative for Obama—not only to save face for NATO as an alliance, but also to show American voters that the United States is not alone in paying the human and financial costs of the mission. However, yesterday’s speech showed that Obama won’t wait for his European allies to make up their minds and deliver the number of troops needed. Obama is under no illusions as to what the Europeans can and are willing to do: he’s defining the mission according to U.S. interests, using U.S. resources, and following a U.S. political calendar, witness his plans to withdraw troops a year before the next presidential election in 2012.

The few remaining NATO countries willing to fight are either on the verge of withdrawing from combat operations, like the Canadians or the Dutch, are militarily overstretched and politically exhausted, like the UK, or can only deploy too few troops to make a significant difference, like Denmark (690). European troops should increasingly focus on training and mentoring the Afghan National Army under the auspices of the NATO Training Mission. With less than eighteen months to go before Obama’s transition timeline, which leaves a twelve-month window for General McChrystal to put pressure on the insurgency, training will need to be amplified for the Afghan National Army to reach the level of 150,000 combat-ready troops.

Obama is acutely aware that more European troops will also mean more political and operational constraints to deal with. American commanders on the ground, including General McChrystal, barely hide their frustration at only being able to call for unity of effort within the 42-country coalition, and not unity of command. Germany offers a typical example of these constraints.  It is the second largest European troop contributor (4,365) after the United Kingdom (9,000). Yet in private, many senior officials view its presence as cumbersome, rather than adding the flexibility needed to wage a complex counterinsurgency campaign. In this regard, the fact that one of the provinces under German responsibility, Kunduz, is rapidly becoming the Taliban’s new northern front line is telling.

Obama has to balance two conflicting imperatives: political ownership—i.e., presenting the mission as a collective NATO effort and a shared burden—and operational efficiency —presenting it as a war fought by American soldiers following the narrow U.S. interest of destroying al-Qaeda. Ultimately, decisions in Washington and actions on the ground are likely to be driven by the latter imperative.

How will the general public in Europe react to this new strategy?

Obama’s announcement is unlikely to change the deep negative trends in European public opinion towards the conflict in Afghanistan. The 2011 deadline may give Europeans a sense that there is an end in sight, but is unlikely to make them favourable to the deployment of further resources in Afghanistan. More than two thirds of the European public thinks the war is lost and opposes any further troop deployments. In the UK, Afghanistan is coming to symbolize a broader loss of confidence in the role and leadership of Britain on the international stage. Sentiment in Germany, where the acknowledgment by the new defence minister that the Bundeswher is actually fighting a war in Afghanistan came a bit too late, is very similar.

At the same time, European governments are unlikely to be voted out because of the crisis in Afghanistan. Local issues and economic worries still rank higher for most European voters. Therefore, while European leaders have little room for manoeuvre in the face of a sceptical publics and parliamentarians—a reality they themselves are largely to blame for—they do not need the full support of their electorates to prosecute the war. The public opinion crisis is a convenient truth for European leaders, allowing them to shirk hard decisions, deliver less support than expected by Washington, and hide the inconvenient truth that Europe, particularly under the guise of the European Security and Defence Policy, is not ready to meet the challenges of modern conflicts and crises.

Short of sending more troops, what can Europe do to remain both a credible ally to the United States and a relevant part of the mission in Afghanistan?

I am not sure if Europe is seen as a credible ally. For Washington, cooperation with Europe is a necessity that comes with much horse-trading and many caveats. Governments in the few European countries ready to commit troops to combat operations, like the United Kingdom or the Netherlands, are in precarious political situations. The UK is likely to reach its 10,000-troops ceiling and desperately needs to show a disgruntled public that other European countries are following suit. The Netherlands will withdraw from combat operations in 2011 and struggle with the question of whether to maintain a civilian presence or not.

However one area where Europe can be an equal partner to the United States is in building Afghan governance.

Europe can help on three fronts. First, it needs to get its police training effort working to full capacity by delivering the long-promised 400 trainers and giving real resources to EUPOL’s chief. Special attention should be given to the professionalization of police forces, i.e., to providing job security, retraining, better pay, and housing. This will be a key factor in reducing the high turnover and desertion rates and criminal behaviour that have thus far characterized many Afghan police deployed in districts. 

The second front is local governance. August’s fraudulent presidential elections laid bare a huge vacuum in Afghan governance, both in Kabul, where corruption and nepotism are endemic, and at the local level, where few basic services reach Afghan communities. To start to fill this void, Europe should help set up a civil service training programme. Not only will this train the Afghan civil servants of tomorrow, but crucially it will give direction to a predominantly young, more than 75 percent of Afghans are below the age of 25, uneducated, and unemployed population.

There has to be serious discussion about placing the importance of institution building above that of elections. According to the Afghan constitution, council elections should take place in all districts next year. Not only is this close to impossible, it is likely to lead to more fraud and increased violence, and ultimately produce institutions with little credibility and even less capacity to deliver services to local communities.

Europe and the United States need to devise a concrete plan to build institutions at a district level. A start would be to allocate more resources to district governors, who currently survive on a monthly budget of ten American dollars. Traditional, informal institutions like Jirgas and Shuras, the local assemblies of elders who are responsible for local law and order, should be integrated in the legal system. The international reconstruction effort must integrate pre-existing institutions so as not to end up creating new ones with artificial agendas and little connection to the realities on the ground.

A final important initiative must be the reform of the Afghan prison system. General McChrystal clearly pointed at the dysfunctional and under-resourced Afghan detention system as one big source of radicalisation among young Afghans. Europe can help to clean up the system by sending more mentors as well as building cleaner detention facilities. This is an area where the United States is ill-equipped to intervene, given its post-Guantanamo record, but where Europe can help.

Obama’s interest in Afghanistan is “destroying al-Qaeda” but this has little resonance in Europe. Are there any other interests that justify such a commitment from Europe?

This is the core of the matter. Americans and Europeans don’t see eye-to-eye on why they are in Afghanistan. While Obama can link his war efforts in Afghanistan with the trauma of 9/11 to garner support from the American voter, the same message has little effect with European voters. This was illustrated by Gordon Brown’s failed attempt earlier this fall to frame the Afghan conflict as essential to British national security and a part of the fight against terrorism. The opinion polls speak for themselves: in early November the BBC found that 64 percent of Britons felt the war in Afghanistan is unwinnable, up 6 percent from the same poll in July.

Europe’s stance on Afghanistan is confused and has suffered due to a lack of commitment from political leaders and a general public that is highly sceptical of military interventions. It took Germany eight years to even begin acknowledging that its army was fighting a war and not just engaged in peace-building and reconstruction. Former British prime minister Tony Blair successively presented the mission as a fight against heroin production, a fight against terrorism, and a fight for gender equality and human rights. While noble, these objectives relate neither to Britain’s nor Europe’s core interests, nor to what can realistically be achieved on the ground. Wanting to wipe out opium production, for example, has proven an elusive and counterproductive objective.

Ultimately, there is little that European governments can do to change public opinion. A more frank acknowledgement of the risks and challenges of the mission might help to contain degrading opinion polls. However, the likelihood is that Obama’s plan will result in a progressive switch from combat operations to longer-term, but lower intensity, reconstruction and training missions. This could very well transform Afghanistan from a headline-grabbing war to a distant crisis management effort; something far more acceptable and doable for Europe.

What effect will the Obama strategy have on the administration of Hamid Karzai? Does this strategy address the fact that many Afghans see their own government as part of the problem rather than a solution to it?

The August elections shattered what little trust was left between the Afghan people and their leadership, as well as between Kabul and the international community. The political crisis is likely to get worse before it things improve.

President Karzai partly secured his re-election by striking deals with local power holders, including highly controversial former warlords such as Marshal Fahim and General Doshtum, in order to secure support from non-Pashtun communities in northern Afghanistan. Those supporters will now expect to be compensated in the form of cabinet seats, provincial appointments, and more autonomy. The French foreign minister acknowledged in a recent interview that recent appointments show no signs of improvement. Surveys after survey, including the latest Asia Foundation poll from June this year, showed that the Afghan people want security and justice. However, the sad reality is that local government officials and police representatives behave more like predators than protectors. This is why, despite fresh memories of their cruelty, the Taliban have support have increased support among many Afghan communities. Our policy of accepting the Afghan government despite all its failings, has therefore contributed to make the Taliban an acceptable alternative.

Obama’s decision to impose a deadline for the withdrawal of troops is really a last roll of the dice. It is probably the most controversial and risky part of his strategy, but also the one that is likely to have the greatest impact. It will redefine the situation on the ground by pushing for a progressive takeover by Afghan security forces and in the political sphere by putting pressure on the Afghan leadership to “deliver” a working government. The risk, however, is that Afghans will feel that they have been abandoned between a corrupt government and an aggressive Taliban insurgency, something they have felt all too often in recent history. Obama is betting that the Afghan government will have no alternative but to create genuine support among its people and develop a security apparatus capable of protecting them from the Taliban. The Afghan government knows that its time under an American umbrella of protection is limited.

As a shrewd politician, Obama has made the choice to appease his domestic constituency by laying out a clear political strategy for the American electorate in the form of an explicit timetable for withdrawal. However, he has yet to develop a strategy that outlines how to deal with the Karzai government and build institutions to serve the Afghan people. This is why, however necessary, his exit plan still falls short of the mark.