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EU reluctant to commit troops to Afghanistan without clear shift in strategy

EU reluctant to commit troops to Afghanistan without clear shift in strategy

Geraint Rees Published in Open democracy 29 – 09 – 2009

European Union defence ministers have expressed reluctance to committing more troops to Afghanistan except as part of a limited plan training the Afghan military and police.

The statements were made as EU defence ministers met yesterday in Göteborg, Sweden, for informal discussions on theEU’s security and defence policy. Several ministers were reluctant to send front line troops, instead wishing to focus resources and efforts on training Afghan security forces. ‘We have a lot, about 2,000 men in Afghanistan. I think it’s far more important in the long run that we have more Afghan military, and Afghan police,’ Dutch defence minister Eimert Van Middelkopp told reporters.

The ToD Verdict: The statements come in anticipation of a possible call by the US for the EU to commit more front line troops to support the Nato-led mission in Afghanistan. The US is considering a request by General Stanley McChrystal, commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, for up to 30,000 extra troops, without which the eight-year mission “will likely result in failure“. In a leaked report to the Pentagon, General McChrystal expressed doubts that any purely military solution to the Afghan war would succeed and called for a complete overhaul of tactics that would focus on safeguarding the Afghan population. Extra troops would be needed to secure civilians in population centres in an effort to loosen the grip of the growing Taliban-led insurgency, but the exposure of troops under such a strategy would almost inevitably result in higher casualties.

President Obama today began a series of closed-door meetings to reassess US strategy in Afghanistan. The Pentagon has put General McChrystal’s request on hold until Obama determines the proper way forward for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, deliberations that could take weeks.

Meanwhile, domestic support for the Afghan mission is rapidly waning in some of the forty countries with troops in Afghanistan under the NATO banner, particularly as rising casualties prove unpopular with voters. The Netherlands and Canada have set 2010 and 2011 as deadlines for withdrawal and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has announced plans for a ‘strong reduction‘ in Italian forces.

Some analysts believe that military strategy in Afghanistan is being sidelined by these domestic economic and political factors, and that defence may become a target for spending cuts by politicians mindful of domestic opinion and the poor state of national finances following the global downturn. James Joyner of the Atlantic Council believes that few Nato members still regard Afghanistan as having much bearing on their own state’s security and see their presence in the region as a nuisance rather than a help.

In his first speech made in US since taking up his post as Nato secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen worked to allay US doubts over Europe’s commitment to Afghanistan on Monday. Rasmussen noted that all Nato members understood that the campaign in Afghanistan was ‘not a war of choice but of necessity.’ Without taking any position on the US-EU debate over whether additional troops are needed, Rasmussen noted that the training programme for Afghan forces needed to be stepped up. He proposed that ‘if Afghan security forces are to take the lead, they will need to be better trained, better equipped and likely more numerous, which means we are all going to have to invest more in training and equipping them.’

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