Outside View: Europe’s Afghan Backlash
Expert guest post by Richard May
(previously published by UPI on March 14, 2007)
via Straus Military Reform Project

Britain has announced that it would be pulling 1,600 troops out of Iraq and
the Dutch have said that they will follow suit. This presents a sharp blow to
the Bush administration and its efforts in the war in Iraq.

The move signals that Europe is growing tired of American adventurism in the
Middle East. Britain and the Netherlands, who are following the British lead,
are not the only European countries that have grown weary of the United States
presence in Iraq, but most countries don’t have troops that they can withdraw
to show their displeasure. Instead, the European countries that lack troops
in Iraq may illustrate their dislike for the United States in another place:
Afghanistan.

The coalition government of Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi has fallen
apart because of a disagreement over foreign policy in Afghanistan. The Italian
Left was unwilling to extend the deployment of 1,900 Italian soldiers in Afghanistan.
Prodi tried to force the issue by taking it to a vote, which subsequently led
to the coalition’s demise and forced his resignation. What the United States
should be worried about, however, is not this singular setback, but the fact
that this might be a harbinger of future impediments to come.

In December 2006, France said that it would pull its 200-soldier Special Forces
unit out of Afghanistan. The Dutch have said that they will not stay beyond
the summer of 2008. Even America’s continental neighbor Canada has said that
it will not extend its troops beyond its commitment of 2009.

Germany, much like many European countries, has repeatedly refused to use its
troops in any way besides training Afghani forces, International Security Assistance
Force operations in the north and reconstruction operations. Are these refusals
a lack of interest in Afghanistan, a loss of faith in America’s ability to succeed,
or a representation of Europe’s growing frustration with the United States?

The United States has been very vocal about NATO members stepping up and providing
support to Afghanistan, but it has seen little response. While the United States
has committed $10.6 billion to Afghanistan reconstruction efforts, Europe has
pledged significantly less, about $777 million over four years. This European
aid is intended for strengthening institutions and the rule of law. While these
are much needed funds, they are a small amount compared to the U.S. contribution.

When looking at the limitations of European troop missions and economic support
together, it becomes clear that the European continent is slowly pulling back
from Afghanistan. Thus, the collapse of the Prodi coalition may be the first,
of many, setbacks for Afghanistan in Europe.

But why is there this backlash? Europe sees the United States as an expansionist
force that is trying to clumsily extend its reach around the world. While most
European nations did not agree with the initial invasion of Iraq, now they have
simply has lost trust that the United States can be successful.

Moreover, Europe has to deal with the possibility that the extremists in Iraq
might come to their countries. Many European nations, including France, Britain
and Germany, have large Muslim populations and the possibility for extremist
elements to bring the training that they learn in Iraq to European doorsteps
is greater than bringing it to the United States.

Another problem is that Europeans are increasingly seeing Iraq and Afghanistan
as one issue. Afghanistan was originally viewed as a U.N.-mandated, NATO-supported
mission. As the United States continues its combat operations in support of
the “global war on terror” in the south of Afghanistan, it looks too
much like the combat operations in Iraq. As Iraq fails and as the Taliban resurges,
too many Europeans are drawing parallels between Afghanistan and Iraq.

The U.S. administration has no one to blame but themselves; by developing the
catchphrase of the “global war on terror” they have muddled opinions
of different operations into one singular endeavor. Originally, the United States
developed the phrase so that people would associate Iraq with the initial successes
in Afghanistan; now that has backfired and people associate the failures of
Iraq with Afghanistan.

To illustrate this point, Massismo D’Alema, the current Italian foreign minister
and former prime minister, said while debating the Italian troop extension,
“There is a profound difference between the military operations in Afghanistan,
approved by the United Nations, and those in Iraq.”

Unfortunately, the Italian Parliament did not see this distinction and promptly
denied the extension. Subsequently, the Italian government collapsed. While
this sad event happened in Italy, it is easy to see similar feelings throughout
Europe. The distinction between Iraq and Afghanistan is fading in European minds,
and as the Taliban becomes stronger the desire for Europeans to withdraw from
another perceived American quagmire will only increase.

Richard May is a Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow at the World Security
Institute’s Center for Defense Information. He served as an officer in the U.S.
Army’s 82nd Airborne Division in Afghanistan and Iraq.