The ongoing war effort in Afghanistan has drained the patience of Western European governments and electorates alike. Polls consistently show that in most European NATO countries, the public has turned against the war while officials are openly beginning to question ISAF’s ability to bring peace and stability to the South Asian state wrecked by violence for almost a decade now.
Last week, Germany’s defense minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, said that the war in Afghanistan cannot be won by military means alone, and that Berlin played down the danger German forces faced in the early years of the mission. What until 2009 was described as “stabilization” — building schools and digging wells — is now, in the words of the popular conservative minister who is favored as successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel as leader of Germany’s largest political party, a “war” involving more than 4,000 German troops.
Germany’s involvement in Afghanistan is deeply unpopular with voters and the government has been under pressure from both the opposition and troops on the ground to explain just what German soldiers are fighting for. Guttenberg’s frankness is appreciated but at the same time, he has repeatedly stressed that Western democracy is unlikely to succeed in Afghanistan. NATO may have to readjust its goals.
Ahead of the Kabul Conference on Tuesday, attended by the foreign ministers of some forty nations, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen admitted in an interview with the German Hamburger Abendblatt that the international community had “underestimated” the war effort. The former Danish prime minister urged NATO to prepare for a prolonged engagement in Afghanistan and warned that more casualties are likely to be incurred. Some 1,822 coalition forces have lost their lives in Afghanistan since 2001 along with more than 5,000 Afghan security forces.
NATO’s commitment to the war in Afghanistan — or rather, its apparent lack of it — has been cause for frustration with the Americans. After President Barack Obama announced a major troop increase last year, Ramusssen pledged 5,000 soldiers to be added to the International Security Assistance Force. Since the start of this year however, the Netherlands has announced its withdrawal from the province of Orūzgān while the British have been forced to surrender part of Helmand Province, casting further doubt upon the future role of currently the second largest contributor to the ISAF mission.
Britain’s political leadership has been sending mixed messages. Whereas Defense Secretary Liam Fox warned against a “premature” withdrawal of forces and predicated that Britain might be among the last of ISAF nations to leave, Prime Minister David Cameron, at the G8 summit in Toronto, Canada earlier this month expressed his intention to have all British troops home before the next general election in 2015. “We can’t be there for another five years, effectively having been there for nine years already,” said Cameron. Foreign Secretary William Hague also hinted at an exit from Afghanistan within the next four years. He told the BBC on July 1 that while Britain is “committed to the Afghans being able to conduct their military operations and security” he would be “very surprised if that took longer than 2014.”
The officials gathered in Kabul are also expected to decide on 2014 as deadline. Within four years, Hamid Karzai’s government must be able to take on full security responsibility in all Afghan provinces. While that will give the NATO allies a chance to withdraw, the United States probably won’t pull out entirely. As in Iraq, where the Americans are scaling down their involvement but planning to remain on the ground for many years to come, expect a prolonged American commitment, in one way or another, to ensure continued stability in Afghanistan, and the region.