War In Afghanistan: Looking For the Way Out
In an election campaign that has been interminably dull, even by German standards, the Sept. 4 missile strike on two oil tankers hijacked by
Taliban insurgents in northern Afghanistan was always going to grab attention.
The U.S. strike, called in by a German commander worried about the security of his troops, allegedly killed some 90 people, including dozens of civilians. It also reminded German voters that the distinction between supporting a combat mission — which is what they like to think their soldiers are doing — and tackling bad guys directly can blur pretty quickly in the Hindu Kush.
The polite posturing of Germany's election campaign captures the mood in most European capitals at the moment. Both Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democrats and the center-left
Social Democrats of Frank-Walter Steinmeier remain committed to Berlin's 4,000-strong troop
deployment in Afghanistan as part of the multinational force there. But Die Linke, a smaller, left-wing party, has won support by campaigning on an immediate withdrawal, and as public support for the Afghanistan mission falls even the mainstream leaders are having to take notice. Steinmeier has recently hinted that he would pull
troops out by 2013, though in a pre-election debate with Merkel he hedged his bets, saying that he merely wanted to "create the conditions" by 2013 so a "withdrawal could begin." Unsurprisingly, Merkel herself has suggested it might be time to draw up a timetable for a pullout.
Not a quick one, mind you. European leaders regularly argue that a hasty withdrawal would spell disaster for Afghanistan, neighboring Pakistan and for their own countries. French Defense Minister Hervé Morin has warned of "absolute chaos" if France pulled out and opened the door
to a rush of other withdrawals. "When the security of our country is at stake," said British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in a speech earlier this month, "we cannot walk away."
But that argument is getting harder to make. In most of Europe, Afghanistan has always been the good war, compared with the bad invasion of Iraq. After the attacks against the U.S. in September 2001, almost 6 in 10 French voters supported sending troops to Afghanistan. Italians and Spaniards backed troop deployments in similar numbers; Britons were even more enthusiastic.
Back then the mission seemed clear-cut and justified: to rid Afghanistan of a cruel, women-hating regime whose control over the country created a safe haven for a terrorist group that threatened the West. Even when they squabbled with Washington over Iraq, countries such as France and Germany stayed firm on Afghanistan. But public support has fallen over the years, and especially in the past 12 months. An August poll by French daily Le Figaro found that just 36% backed France's military's presence in Afghanistan. In July, a Forsa poll for German magazine Stern found that 61% of Germans want the country's military involvement to end. In Britain, which has 9,000 troops in Afghanistan — the second largest deployment after the U.S. —
a recent survey for the National Army Museum found that only 25% favored the mission, compared with 53% opposing it. Even in the U.S. support for the war has slipped, as President Obama contemplates sending more troops. According to a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey this month, just 39% of Americans support the war, down from 53% in April.
Battle fatigue — or its equivalent among those safe at home — is inevitable, especially after eight years fighting the same war. Things might be different if people had a sense that Afghanistan was making progress. Instead, this summer saw an escalation in violence and a steady stream of fatalities. The number of European soldiers lost — 35 Germans, 31 French, 15 Italians — may not be big in comparison to the 830 Americans killed. But as a proportion of numbers deployed, casualties have been significant. An incident like that in August last year, when 10 French soldiers were killed in a single Taliban attack, has a profound impact on the home front. "We cannot continue to remain ... where the [local] population is suffering and where we count our dead without asking ...
what is France's role and interest," Socialist Party leader Martine Aubry said this month, a day after France lost two more soldiers. "In 2001, then in 2003, France joined NATO troops to continue taking out the Taliban, but above all to reconstruct the country. [But France] now finds our troops alongside the American army essentially in an antiterrorism struggle. This wasn't the NATO mandate, and it wasn't France's choice."
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who supports Obama's call for more European troops in Afghanistan, says it's important to tell the "true stories of what's going on. Both the setbacks and the achievements." As Prime Minister of Denmark until last April, Rasmussen went out of his way to explain the reasons Danish troops were in Afghanistan. As a consequence, he says, support for the mission has held up better in Denmark than elsewhere. The British might learn a lesson from that. Gordon Brown has frequently tried to explain the Afghanistan mission. But David Davis, a prominent opposition MP and a former Foreign Office minister, argues that public support has dropped because of a "lack of clarity about what we're trying to achieve." Davis claims that "the aims of the war have been changing week by week" and that Brown falls back on a "grotesque oversimplification that there will be a direct reflection on the streets of London and our other cities if we don't defeat the Taliban ... which is plainly not true." (Read: "Anders Fogh Rasmussen: The Reformer.")
Nowhere is the task less clear to the average voter than in Germany. Successive German leaders have sold the country's troop deployment as nation-building, not combat. But as the oil-tanker episode proved, mission creep is hard to avoid when the enemy starts attacking you. German involvement in Afghanistan was snuck "past people," Jurgen Trittin, the foreign policy spokesman for the Greens, recently argued. Now, with the Taliban moving into the once peaceful north, where most of Germany's troops are stationed, Germans have to face the fact that their military — a force that saw no action between the end of World War II and 1999, when it joined the coalition to force Serbia out of Kosovo — is fighting a war. (Read: "Germany's Election: Divided They Stand.")
The allegations of vote-rigging and electoral fraud following last month's Afghan elections haven't helped. President Hamid Karzai was once the West's great hope for Afghanistan — stylish and urbane, deeply versed in Afghan politics but not completely part of it, he seemed the perfect man to lead his country out of its darkest days. But Western capitals have found him an unreliable and often frustrating partner.
The election has "raised a question in people's minds," says Colonel Christopher Langton, senior fellow for Conflict and Defence Diplomacy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "Why should we be supporting such an individual and helping him to re-establish authority — using British lives — if he is so corrupt?"
There's no quick or easy answer to that question. Violence will ebb over the winter, and perhaps a political accommodation between the government
and main opposition party — or indeed with the Taliban — will help in Kabul. But as fighting starts to heat up again next spring, and the U.S. leans on its allies in Europe for more troops, opposition to the Afghanistan campaign is likely to grow.
The consequences of a withdrawal could be awful. But the clamor for it is getting louder.
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