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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.

The Obama administration has asked other NATO governments to begin thinking about what contributions they can make "beyond troops," including helicopters, training for Afghan security forces, assistance with judicial reform and counter-narcotics efforts, and infrastructure development. Responses to those queries will be factored into a new strategy Obama expects to propose at the NATO summit in early April, according to a senior administration official in Washington.

"We're going to come up with an updated strategy . . . [and] consult our allies, and we're all going to be in this together," he said. "I don't think we're going to come up with a list of demands that says you're either with us or against us or whatever."

Retired U.S. Army Gen. Dan K. McNeill, who commanded NATO's International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan until he stepped down in June, echoed other U.S. generals in saying the coalition especially needs more helicopters and better intelligence-sharing, as well as more soldiers.

He said European politicians who visited Afghanistan often expressed skepticism when he advised them that the NATO force was not big enough to cope with a growing counterinsurgency.

"I was taken to task by one European parliamentarian who said, 'You're just like all generals, you always want more money and soldiers,' " McNeill said in a telephone interview.

U.S. and European officials said they don't expect Vice President Biden to make detailed requests for troop deployments or more equipment when he speaks Saturday at the annual Munich Security Conference. But they said Biden will repeat the White House's intent to make Afghanistan a higher priority and its need for substantial help from NATO.

Other participants in the high-level conference include German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Constanze Stelzenmueller, director of the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said Washington and its transatlantic allies need to make the strategic review of the war a joint effort. "There is a very widespread consensus between the U.S. and Europe that there needs to be a strategic reassessment of the mission," she said.

Stelzenmueller said European countries in particular want to place more of an emphasis on better coordination of the military and development efforts.

"The Obama administration needs to make it clear that it understands this is not just about applying the military hammer," she said. "That will make it much easier to get the Europeans to increase their support."

But U.S. and European military officials are deeply divided on some key issues. For example, the Pentagon wants to take a harder line against opium growers and drug kingpins in Afghanistan, a major source of cash for the Taliban.

Many European countries advocate a softer approach, with some officials calling for a temporary legalization of opium production to avoid alienating Afghan farmers who grow poppies.

The conflict turned into a public spat last week when German news media reported on a leaked memo from U.S. Army Gen. John Craddock, the supreme allied commander in Europe, in which he urged NATO soldiers to attack drug producers and labs throughout Afghanistan, regardless of whether they support the Taliban.

European lawmakers and military officials reacted angrily, saying that Craddock was overstepping NATO's rules of engagement. In a statement, NATO characterized Craddock's memo as "general guidance," adding: "He has not, and never has, issued illegal orders."

Although many European countries are calling for a greater focus on humanitarian aid, training and reconstruction in Afghanistan, progress on those fronts has been plagued by inefficiency and a lack of coordination, according to many U.S. and European officials.

In November, Brig. Gen. Hans-Christoph Ammon, head of the German military's special forces command, said a German government program to train Afghan police officers had "failed miserably."

Ammon accused the German Interior Ministry, which oversaw the training, of spending too little and not taking the program seriously. At the rate it was going, he said, "it would have taken us another 82 years to set up a reasonable Afghan police force." U.S. and European Union police trainers have since taken over most of the duties.

Karl Lamers, deputy chairman of the German Parliament's defense policy committee, said Germany had done a "great job" in training Afghan police officers and had bolstered NATO's air transport capacity throughout the country, in addition to its peacekeeping duties in the northern provinces.

"We think 'more troops, more troops' will not be enough," said Lamers, a member of Merkel's Christian Democratic party. "We will not bring peace to Afghanistan only with military means."

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