KABUL, Afghanistan — The war in Afghanistan is being fought by NATO soldiers near this capital, but it may be lost in the capitals of Europe. Europe’s citizenry is tiring of this prolonged and distant conflict, while their governments struggle to maintain NATO solidarity in the face of Taliban advances in Southern Afghanistan and deadly suicide attacks here in Kabul.
More than half of the 53,000 coalition troops deployed to Afghanistan are American. About 41,000 of that coalition total are assigned to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission; the remaining, mostly American, contingent operates separately under the U.S. Central Command. Together they face an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 active Taliban and other insurgents.
The contribution of America’s 36 coalition partners is important, but in many cases it is limited. Most coalition contributions are relatively small; only eight contribute a thousand or more troops. The U.S. and a few key allies such as Britain do most of the fighting. Seven allies join the U.S. in the turbulent southern region while combat operations in the east are also primarily American. Most partners are deployed in the quieter northern and western region. About two thirds of all coalition casualties in Afghanistan are American.
Germany is a top contributor with more than 3,000 troops deployed. The German government last month renewed its engagement in Afghanistan despite the opposition of some 62% of the German public.
But ISAF commanders remain vexed by the limitations placed on the German troops. While they will support Afghan Army combat operations in the north where they are deployed and will fight there in self defense, they have no significant operational reserves for combat. They will respond to emergency situations elsewhere in Afghanistan with logistics and transport. They cannot reinforce combat operations in the south without consulting the Bundestag in Berlin.
Dutch forces serve in the turbulent Uruzgan province and the Canadians are deployed around Kandahar, a Taliban stronghold. Both have experienced considerable fighting. Both are looking for relief. The Dutch government seeks to reduce its 1,600 troop commitment by about a quarter starting next summer, and it is considering withdrawal if reinforcements from other nations cannot be found. The Canadians also prefer to move to a less dangerous mission. NATO leaders fear that the Dutch and Canadian actions could trigger an unraveling of the ISAF coalition with dire consequences for NATO.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates sought at the recent NATO Defense Ministerial to raise more European troops for Afghanistan. He went so far as to suggest that the U.S. might swing its troops from still-volatile Kosovo to Afghanistan if Europeans do not contribute adequately in Afghanistan. Several NATO allies responded with promises of small increases, but not enough to meet the Dutch needs. These small contributions also do not address the growing requirement for reinforcements in Afghanistan.
A recent German Marshall Fund poll showed that European support for combat operations in Afghanistan is only about 31%, so much needs to be done. Three basic points can help European governments make this case before irreversible damage is done.
First, this war is waged in direct response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the U.S. as well as to al-Qaeda sponsored attacks in London and Madrid. The Taliban harboring al Qaeda have systematically proven their brutality to all who deviate from their radical religious beliefs. The war is being fought under the international legitimacy of a September 2001 NATO Article 5 declaration, and a December 2001 U.N. Security Council Resolution. NATO’s North Atlantic Council made a clear decision to engage by taking overall responsibility for the ISAF mission. The American people support this conflict, in marked contrast to deep divisions over Iraq.
Second, this war can be won. While Taliban forces have retaken some territory, fighting over the past half year has not been in their favor. Casualties among Taliban leadership have been high, and some of those remaining are contacting the Afghan government and international organizations asking how they might avoid being targeted. Some are suggesting peace talks. Without their sanctuary in Pakistan’s frontier provinces, the Taliban and their al Qaeda partners would not last long.
Third, the consequences of failure are severe. A much bloodier civil war would surely break out. Taliban rule would return to much of Afghanistan. Regional instability already evident in Pakistan would escalate. Al Qaeda would regain a more stable base of operations. And NATO would be shattered, having failed at its most important military conflict to date.
Mr. Binnendijk is Director of the Center for Technology and National Security Policy and professor of national security studies at the National Defense University.
This article has been shortened from its original version, which was published on the Wall Street Journal on November 10, 2007. Printed here by permission of the author.
Related Materials from the Atlantic Community:
- Jan Techau says that German Foreign Policy Needs to Grow Up
- Interview with Victoria Nuland, US Ambassador to NATO
- Afghanistan Mission: A Hard Sell in Germany
- Jaap de Hoop Scheffer discusses Afghanistan: The Way Ahead