The EU is Missing in Action in Afghanistan

The withdrawal of Britain’s Paddy Ashdown as a candidate for the post of UN envoy in Afghanistan means that the international community still has some way to go before it speaks with one voice in that country. Such a unified voice is needed, for six years of war and the biggest military operation in NATO’s history have failed to subdue the Afghan insurgency, leaving President Hamid Karzai’s increasingly corrupt government dependent on the continued presence of international forces.

Afghanistan remains the world’s fifth poorest country and its biggest opium producer, with a weak central state that is further debilitated by warlordism and the Taliban insurgency. There are many reasons for this outcome, but at least some of the blame lies with the European Union.

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On paper, the EU effort looks impressive. Twenty-five EU nations have contributed troops to NATO’s 35,000-strong army in Afghanistan, and now represent more than half of all troops. EU states command a third of all Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), and, together with the European Commission, have paid for a third of the country’s post-2001 reconstruction.

But European support for the Afghan mission is in fact limited, and cooperation between the biggest EU donor governments and the European Commission remains inadequate.

Public support for Europe’s engagement has been plummeting, and most EU governments have failed to act on NATO’s request to boost troop levels. One exception is the United Kingdom, which has recently pledged to increase its troop numbers in the restive poppy-growing province of Helmand. But European troop contributions continue to fall short of the 17,000 US troops deployed with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and its 8,000 Coalition Force troops outside of ISAF.

Apart from 1,500 Dutch soldiers in the neighboring Uruzgan province and a Polish and Romanian presence in Ghazni, Paktika, and Zabul, no other EU nations are willing to operate in the insurgency-ridden southern and eastern parts of the country, giving the Taliban free reign. Overall, there are at least 60 such operating restrictions – known as “caveats” – on European troops, preventing commanders from deploying military assets where they are most needed.

In areas such as policing, the rule of law, and counter-narcotics, EU states have pursued policies entirely independently of each other. The EU Police Mission (EUPOL), launched in June 2007, was meant to address this lack of coordination, but in the end its focus was narrowed to police reform, with the Commission funding a separate judicial program. EUPOL started poorly, losing its first commander, and faces serious problems recruiting high-caliber staff.

Finally, the Commission’s annual development assistance to Afghanistan is falling this year, from €200 million to €150 million. Individual commitments are also being cut – for example, France’s five-year, €33 million pledge for reconstruction support is strikingly low compared to its total foreign-aid budget of €9 billion.

The EU cannot alter the international coalition’s strategy alone. But a united EU can act as a powerful advocate for a better and more coordinated international approach.

The US has argued that more troops are needed to dominate the terrain, lambasting EU governments for failing to step up their efforts as the US commits 3500 additional marines to the fray. European countries, meanwhile, criticize the current military strategy. They fear that more troops may only lead to more civilian casualties, antagonizing Afghans.

Without a grand bargain between the US and the EU that ensures increased European support and troops, success in Afghanistan will be elusive and alliance-testing tensions with the US will remain.

Such a bargain must contain two elements. First, the EU should commit to sending more troops, trainers, and civilians to the Afghan mission, as well as lifting all remaining “caveats” on its troops. The mission needs a 10% troop increase, more military and police trainers, and more military equipment, including helicopters. In addition, the Commission should reverse the decline in assistance and spend more money though local governments and the PRTs.

In exchange, the US should accept a strategic shift from combat operations to human security. Such a strategy means focusing more attention on ordinary Afghans, gradually expanding NATO’s security presence outward from population centers, and working hand-in-glove with state and local authorities.

This new strategy would be further strengthened if the international community abandoned the current counter-narcotics policy – including an end to aerial eradication – and helping Karzai reach a political settlement with mid-ranking, “moderate” insurgents.

All of this will require leadership that cuts across institutional boundaries, which can be provided only by the UN and a strong-willed individual. The appointment of a new UN envoy should prove a more efficient way of coordinating Afghanistan’s international helpmates. And it is to be hoped that whoever is chosen may be able to foster the grand bargain between the US and EU that is so badly needed.

Despite the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, all is not lost. But turning the situation around will require changing the way the international community operates. By striking a bargain with the US, the EU should lead the way.