Afghanistan Appeal May Temper European Allies' Ardor for Obama

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 6, 2009

MUNICH, Feb. 5 -- European leaders cheered when Barack Obama was elected president in November. They cheered again when he proclaimed during his inaugural address that America was "ready to lead once more" in the world, and yet again when he pledged to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

But when Obama sends his vice president and other top emissaries to an international security conference here this weekend to seek help with the war in Afghanistan, NATO allies are unlikely to be as enthusiastic, European defense officials and analysts said in interviews.

The Obama administration is expected to announce plans to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, where the United States and its allies fear they are losing ground in the war against the Taliban. Although European leaders say they are eager to curry favor with the new U.S. president, they are proving just as reluctant to contribute more soldiers or money to the NATO-led operation as they were during President George W. Bush's last years in the White House.

French Defense Minister Hervé Morin said last month that "there is no question, for now, of considering extra reinforcements" from Paris. Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende said his country would start drawing down its 1,770 troops in Afghanistan next year. German officials have also ruled out sending more soldiers beyond a parliamentary decision last year to expand the force to 4,500.

Some European defense officials, however, have warned that a perceived lack of support for the Afghan mission will damage the political credibility of NATO members who otherwise want to be taken more seriously in Washington.

"If Europeans expect that the United States will close Guantanamo, sign up to climate-change treaties, accept European Union leadership on key issues -- but provide nothing more in return, for example in Afghanistan, than encouragement -- they should think again," NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said in a Jan. 26 speech in Brussels, where NATO has its headquarters. "It simply won't work like that."

John Hutton, Britain's defense secretary, last month chided unnamed European members of NATO for "freeloading on the back of U.S. military security" and said they had a "limited appetite" for the Afghanistan campaign.

"It isn't good enough to always look to the U.S. for political, financial and military cover," he said.

Britain has 8,900 troops in Afghanistan, second only to the United States, and is one of the few countries -- along with Poland -- that has said it may consider sending more.

All told, there are 55,000 troops under NATO command in Afghanistan, a coalition that includes small contingents from countries that do not belong to NATO, such as Australia and New Zealand.

About 23,000 U.S. troops are part of the NATO operation; an additional 13,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan operate separately, under their own command. NATO officials have said they would like about 10,000 more troops, as well as fewer restrictions on how much fighting soldiers can do, and where.

Germany, for instance, has mandated that its troops remain in northern Afghanistan, which is relatively peaceful, and that they cannot deploy in combat operations in the south, where the Taliban is strong. Italian forces, which are based in western Afghanistan, operate under similar limits.

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