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British Doubts on Afghan War Show Big Transatlantic Splits on NATO Strategy     Print Email

Amid the daily reports of deepening military problems in Afghanistan, NATO operations there are at risk not just because of the mounting tempo of the Taliban but also because allied capitals are papering over deep disagreements about the strategy and the conduct of the campaign. The command structure is afflicted by the simultaneous presence in the field of many three and four-star generals from different countries and their divergences have damaged morale among troops and officials on the ground and spread pessimism in the Western media, especially in Europe. The U.S. feeling of political concern has become acute now that Britain is showing signs of becoming lukewarm about its Afghan commitment. If Britain, the key U.S. ally in the campaign, were to pull its forces out of Afghanistan, it would be easy to see other European governments following the British lead to the exit.

A blunt analysis of the emerging confusion and disarray among the allies was delivered recently in Washington by a leading British specialist, who did not mince words about the urgency of the problem, “It is clear that for the next two years the EU and the US need to be brutally honest with each other about Afghanistan and to commit their focus to this war and its resolution”, Dr. Michael Clarke, Director of RUSI (the London-based Royal United Services Institute) told a think tank in Washington in late October.

The multinational character of the NATO-led military forces there are by no means the only source of confusion and trouble. According to Clarke, some of the numerous NGO’s and other international civilian organizations on the ground there are severely obstructing military operations with their mere presence. Perhaps worst of all, the Afghan government has yet to make substantive progress on its own in establishing stability and its own credibility, he said.

These problems in Afghanistan have exposed fundamental weaknesses in the EU’s defense capabilities. On paper, the EU and NATO together account for 25% of the world’s defense spending, but their actual capabilities for fighting a conflict such as Afghanistan are alarmingly weak and poorly adapted to the battlefield. A gap is widening dangerously between some allied governments’ claims on paper about their troop and equipment capabilities and the actual forces they can deploy. This discrepancy has often exposed, to a devastating degree, the conflict in Afghanistan. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has complained publicly about the European allies’ unreadiness to fight counter-insurgency warfare, and this fall 10 French service people died in a Taliban ambush for which the NATO fighters were ill-equipped. France has set out to repair the shortcomings in its expeditionary force there but, on a larger scale, this lack of realism in governments about the issue could threaten the future of European defense. “If NATO and the EU continue to have delusions about their military mission capabilities without actually assessing the realities, the consequences will be catastrophic,” he said.

British doubts about the outlook have surfaced in the form of conversations that have been leaked. Defeatist comments by British officials generally take the line that “America’s strategy is doomed” and “we are not going to win this war” in Afghanistan. Even US Admiral Mike Mullen (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) was reported by the Economist as admitting that Afghanistan is “not going in the right direction.” The British seem most in favor of starting some type of dialogue with elements of the Taliban – a move sternly rejected, so far, by Washington.

The U.S. role in Afghanistan has now come under the command of General David Petraeus, who was the architect of the surge strategy credited with bringing some stability to Iraq. But he would be the first to recognize that in some ways Afghanistan poses bigger challenges than Iraq. The very difficult, often treacherous terrain in Afghanistan makes it harder for Western forces to hunt down individual rebels. The Kabul regime lacks far behind Baghdad in having the foundations for a modern central administration. Pakistan seems even less inclined to cooperate about Afghanistan than Iran or Syria has been about Iraq. But Petraeus reportedly believes there is room for maneuver in getting “reconcilable” Afghan tribes to the fight against the Taliban. There may be some hopeful signs in Pakistan terrorist actions increase there and move leaders and public opinion in that country to turn against their own violent Islamic militants.