The United States and its European allies have fundamentally different ideas about what is needed to build a functioning country in Afghanistan a rift that could have possibly fatal consequences for NATO, according to an international panel of experts.
A former White House official accused some European political leaders of not doing enough to prepare their voters for the possibility of violence and casualties in Afghanistan. That failure has led to greatly varying acceptance of risk among NATO member states with troop contingents in Afghanistan. That fact, in turn, threatens to scuttle the entire mission, said the former official, Kori Schake.
"What we are looking at in Afghanistan is and I mean this with real foreboding a much more dangerous international order if the lessons that people take away from Afghanistan is that the world's wealthiest countries, most capable militaries, with the support of the United Nations and the NATO alliance, can not piece together a successful international intervention," Schake said during a November 13 panel discussion, titled NATO's Big Mission: The United States, Europe and the Challenge of Afghanistan. The Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, sponsored the discussion.
"What does that tell the rebels in Darfur, what does that tell the bad guys in Somalia, what does that tell people who want Kosovo to go up in flames this fall? It tells them that there's not an international community, that you can peel off the countries where the political leadership didn't make a good enough case to their public that what German soldiers are doing in Afghanistan is important to Germany," Schake added.
A German security expert, Peter Rudolf, a researcher at the Berlin-based Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (German Institute for International and Security Affairs), acknowledged that public opinion in Germany is trending against involvement in Afghanistan. While there is still support for civil reconstruction work, only 4 percent of the German public favors an increase in military involvement in Afghanistan, Rudolf said.
"Over the last two years, the change in the mission from stabilization to counterinsurgency has been a real challenge for policymakers and for the German public," he said. "There might be experts in the foreign policy community who argue that in Afghanistan, the future of NATO is at stake, that there are vital security interests, but this argument does not resonate with German politicians or the German public. Hardly any German politician would speak out in favor of doing more militarily in Afghanistan."
The effect of that has been to create, in essence, two sorts of missions in Afghanistan, Schake said one, in the south, where there is much more combat, and one in the rest of the country, made up of European allies who are less willing to accept risk.
"The reason there are two NATO chains of command is because most NATO countries were not willing to sign up for the kinds of fighting that the British, Canadians, Dutch, Danish and Americans are doing in the south," she said. "And the United States, to be honest, was not sure we wanted them to, both for the practical reason that the nuts and bolts of fighting in this type of environment are extraordinarily difficult."
"I'll give you a nightmare scenario," she added. "If I were a Taliban bad guy, I would set 150 snipers up outside one of the German or Swedish [Provincial Reconstruction Teams] and shoot everybody who came through the front gate. Because I bet you could precipitate a German withdrawal out of Afghanistan, and a wider European withdrawal out of Afghanistan, for the same reason that you saw the US beat a hasty retreat out of Somalia: namely, that the political leadership has not prepared the public for the fact that their soldiers are involved not merely in reconstruction
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.