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Obama May Face 'Rebuff' from Europe on Military Step-Up in Afghanistan

Interviewee: Robert E. Hunter, Senior Adviser, RAND Corporation
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
January 22, 2009

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Robert E. Hunter, U.S. ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) during the Clinton administration, says despite U.S. calls for a stepped-up military role by European NATO members in Afghanistan, he thinks there will only be a "token response." He pointed to opinion surveys showing "there's not a single European country that wants to see more of its troops go to Afghanistan." The issue will be raised early by the Obama administration, Hunter says, "and if the United States pushes too hard on asking for new forces, it will lead to a rebuff, and at the beginning of an administration you don't want to be rebuffed."

President Barack Obama is expected to ask the Europeans very soon to increase their involvement in Afghanistan as part of a stepped-up military effort. What's the mood in Europe these days on helping out in Afghanistan?

Well, first, one has to understand that this issue is coming at us pretty quickly. Not only is there the NATO summit on April 24, the sixtieth anniversary summit, part in Strasbourg, France, and part in Kehl, Germany, but there is the annual Munich conference on security policy, which is on February to 8.

What will happen in Munich?

It used to be that during the Cold War, the U.S. secretary of defense would show up with his NATO counterparts and he would give them their marching orders for the next year. Now of course it's post-Cold War, but traditionally the secretary of defense shows up and makes a major speech. This is the moment, in my judgment, in which the United States has to lay out clearly its planning for Afghanistan and its expectations for the Europeans. Now, to get back to your question, there remain several countries that do share America's concern about what is happening in Afghanistan and of course of equal moment also in nearby Pakistan. The ones who've committed troops include Canada, Britain, the Netherlands, France, and some other countries like Estonia. And every NATO country, of course, has troops there.

Germany has a lot of troops, but they're not doing much, right?

They have about five thousand in the northern part of the country, and in fact Chancellor Angela Merkel has authorization to increase that by up to 1,500 from the current Bundestag [parliament]. That authorization is good until this autumn, but German troops are under what are called NATO "caveats," namely what troops are allowed to do and in particular what they aren't allowed to do and when they aren't allowed to do it. The Germans are heavily caveated. If there were troops fighting in the south and east who got in deep trouble, they could come to the rescue, but not in ordinary times.

President Obama has already said that he would increase the U.S. force commitment by about thirty thousand troops, which would be close to a doubling of the U.S. forces if you add those which are both with Operation Enduring Freedom, which was the original invasion force, and is under Central Command, and also the International Security Assistance Force [ISAF], the NATO-led operation, which is, ironically, under the European Command, insofar as Americans are involved in it. But at the same time, he has made clear, at least prior to being elected and prior to becoming president, that he would ask the Europeans for more help. In fact, in his speech in Berlin last summer, in front of the Victory Column, Sen. Obama said the only thing he would ask of the Europeans was more support in conflicts such as Afghanistan.

What will be the response?

Bottom line: There will be some token response to an appeal from the U.S. administration. But it will only be a token response. According to the polling data, there's not a single European country that wants to see more of its troops go to Afghanistan. In many of them, it is a question of how long they will continue to be involved. I rather suspect if the United States pushes too hard on asking for new forces, it will lead to a rebuff, and at the beginning of an administration you don't want to be rebuffed.

Even though there's all this goodwill for Obama?

Well, clearly there's extraordinarily goodwill for the new president, not just because he's different from the previous president, and also not just because he symbolizes what America has come to-farther than any European country, incidentally-in having someone who is not a traditional-looking member of the society leading it. There's also great hope because of the things Obama has said and the things he has stood for. He is seen as somebody who has the genuine capacity to lead in ways that Europeans find congenial.

Having said that, for these individual countries, asking them to do things their parliaments and people won't do, especially early on, is, I'm afraid, a nonstarter. It may well be later on that once the new administration does indeed forge a new partnership with allies, Obama  can make a serious case for why Afghanistan is important, and then something might be possible, but I fear that unless the United States thinks very clearly about what it wants from the Europeans, we could have the administration start off in Europe with a negative.

What should we be asking for?

We do have to ask the Europeans to do more militarily. And in terms of getting numbers of people there and types of equipment, that can be even within the current caveats that do exist. Part of it is getting the right kind of equipment, particularly helicopters, into the country. But what I would do is focus on the total, corporate picture of what has to be done in Afghanistan and also in the tribal areas of Pakistan. As candidate Obama said over and over again, and General James L. Jones, Jr., the new national security adviser, has said, you have to see this in terms of what is now being called "smart power," something [Secretary of State nominee] Hillary Clinton focused on very much in her confirmation hearing. The military in Afghanistan can be the shield, the protector, but the sword, the real activity, has to be in three big areas: governance--much better governance on the part of the government in Kabul; reconstruction; and development. And that's going to be expensive. We and others have done some things on this but the result has been woefully inadequate so far.

Here's what I'd ask of the Europeans: "If you're not going to send the troops that are needed for the shield function, we collectively need a much greater European effort on governance, reconstruction, and development." In the compact on Afghanistan that was signed several years ago, where the United States took the lead effort in terms of many of the military parts, three European countries took responsibility for things happening in the country: the British on poppy eradication; the Germans on building up the national police; and the Italians on judicial reform. Admittedly, each of these countries were supposed to have help, but all three of these efforts have failed and failed abysmally. This is something that we have the right to expect the Europeans to do more about. After all, nobody mandated that NATO go to Afghanistan; each of these countries did it of their own free will. Similarly, I believe, it is time for the Europeans to appoint somebody of genuine stature to coordinate aid and development efforts. Last year, Lord Paddy Ashdown, who was the high commissioner  in Bosnia, was appointed, and he was sent out to Afghanistan. He was not acceptable to Afghan President Hamid Karzai for a variety of reasons, but they didn't appoint anyone else.

Now, the United Nations does have a representative there, a Norwegian diplomat, Ambassador Kai Eide, who was ambassador to NATO and is a very able person, but he's too junior. Unless they send somebody really of stature, like Tony Blair, you're not going to get the Europeans to respond.

"It may well be later on that once the new administration does indeed forge a new partnership with allies, Obama can make a serious case for why Afghanistan is important … but I fear that unless the United States thinks very clearly about what it wants from the Europeans, we could have the administration start off in Europe with a negative."

I get the sense from European and American newspapers that there's a general negative view of President Karzai these days, that his administration is corrupt, and he's inept. Yet he's running for reelection this spring.

There's no doubt that there is not a lot of confidence in Karzai. There are even supposedly members of his own family who are on the take when it comes to poppy production and the like. Recognizing, however, that Afghanistan is an amazingly complicated place, that competent central government has been the gross exception rather than the rule in that country, to say that somebody other than Karzai could do a better job is putting the wish ahead of what the facts are likely to be. My judgment is that you can try to nurture the government to have better governance, but there have to be a lot of resources. This is an expensive proposition, but it is a lot cheaper than spending blood in place of treasure. And no one has been sufficiently serious about it. The U.S. government actually has been more serious than others. This, of course, begins to beg the questions: one, the relative importance of Pakistan, and then also whether we need a new strategy.

Talk a bit about Pakistan policy.

My judgment is that it's not that we gave $10 billion, and it mostly went to the military, but that we didn't give $100 billion. We collectively also have to get very serious about economic efforts within Pakistan in general, and that's going to cost a lot. One idea I have is that we should be asking the oil-producing states of the Persian Gulf to be putting up major amounts of money both for Afghanistan and for Pakistan. The equation is fairly simple. Our oil money goes to these countries. Some of that money should go to Afghanistan and Pakistan, especially because the oil-producing states of the southern littorals, the UAE [United Arab Emirates] and around to Saudi Arabia, expect us to take care of their security. Well, let them start to do what we need. And I'm talking about $10, $20, $30 billion.

Don't the Saudis contribute to Afghanistan?

Not much. The UAE sends about 350 special forces, but that's not what you need; you need their money for reconstruction and development.

There's been this recurring thought that perhaps there should be a negotiated deal getting the Taliban into the Afghan government.

One thing that is very much in play now, which has been advanced more by the British government, I believe, than anyone else is whether one should start trying to separate out, to the extent you can, deep concerns with al-Qaeda, the terrorists who have a global agenda, from the Taliban, which has political aspirations to an extent in the tribal areas of Pakistan and certainly in Afghanistan. As odious as the Taliban are, you have to remember that the United States played a very strong role in putting the Taliban into power in Afghanistan in the first place, and then had to sit by and watch this abysmal human rights record that they had. The British are already advancing the idea that maybe the Taliban could be allowed to have a significant role in governance, at least in part of Afghanistan. The Karzai government is already exploring the idea of trying to deal with what one might call "economic"  Taliban, people who did it for the money.

Most European states didn't contribute to Afghanistan because they really cared, but for other reasons: One, they weren't prepared to do Iraq. Two, they didn't want to get crossed wires with the United States. Third, they want to be sure, given how much we care about it, that if there's another problem in Europe, they don't want the United States to turn a blind eye or turn its back on them because they didn't help in Afghanistan.

This is not seen in Europe as an allied effort; it's seen as an American effort that they're supporting, and that's a bad place to be. I wouldn't be at all surprised if in the next few months we see a real rethinking about the strategic importance of keeping the Taliban at arm's length as opposed to stepping up the fight against terrorism per se, and al-Qaeda in general, and also buttressing the Pakistani government to try to increase its crackdown in tribal areas.

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