Interactive Map: Europe’s Role in Afghanistan

NATO countries have pledged more troops and money for Afghanistan, but it remains to be seen whether this will signal improvements, writes Natalie Ondiak.

President Barack Obama visited Europe recently, where he displayed a renewed pragmatism and commitment to partnerships as he seeks to engage the international community to find solutions to global challenges—the economic crisis, nuclear nonproliferation, and NATO’s role in Afghanistan going forward.

The United States has been working with NATO allies in Afghanistan through the International Security Assistance Force made up chiefly of American, European, Canadian, and Australian troops. The United States has sent the bulk of combat troops so far, while European countries have preferred to send military and civilian trainers and aid workers to the mission in Afghanistan. Their commitments are seen on the map below.

Europe’s military commitments in Afghanistan

Roll over a country to see its troop and money commitments to Afghanistan.


Sources: Soldiers deployed figures from NATO; civilians deployed figures from a European Council on Foreign Relations report; disbursed aid to Afghanistan figures from the Afghan Ministry of Finance.

Afghanistan has emerged as one of President Obama’s chief national security concerns in his first months in office. Since the war there began in 2001, it has been overshadowed by the Iraq war and has remained the “forgotten front” despite deteriorating conditions and a resurgence of the Taliban and other militant groups.

Obama had two primary goals with regard to NATO during his Europe trip : sell the U.S. strategy he outlined at the end of March and increase European commitments of troops, money, and other assistance to Afghanistan.

President Obama has called for a comprehensive strategy, which was lacking in the Bush administration. The Obama administration’s strategy for Afghanistan is based on various reviews with input by members of the domestic and international defense, diplomatic, and development communities as well as the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Key features of this plan include:

  • Focusing on disrupting, dismantling, and defeating Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan and preventing their return to the region in the future.
  • Acknowledging that Afghanistan’s future is linked to the future of its neighbor Pakistan.
  • Launching a standing, trilateral dialogue among the United States, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
  • Deploying 17,000 U.S. troops and shifting the emphasis of the mission to training. This will also entail increasing the size of the Afghan security force so that a gradual handover can occur and they can eventually take the lead in securing the country.
  • Deploying 4,000 troops to train Afghan security forces and accelerating the efforts to build an Afghan army of 134,000 and a police force of 82,000 by 2011.
  • Substantially increasing the number of U.S. civilian development and diplomacy workers on the ground, including investments in State Department and foreign assistance programs.
  • Creating a new compact with the Afghan government to crack down on corrupt behavior and set benchmarks and clear metrics for international assistance so that aid is used to provide for the Afghan people's needs.
  • Strengthening international organizations such as NATO and the United Nations for more effective collective action in Afghanistan. Regarding NATO allies, the United States seeks not simply troops but clearly defined capabilities to support Afghan elections, train Afghan security forces, and provide a greater civilian commitment to the Afghan people.

President Obama’s robust agenda for Afghanistan also includes military, diplomatic, and development aspects. The Center for American Progress has advocated for a holistic approach similar to the president’s through the sustainable security concept integrating the defense, diplomacy, and development communities in policymaking.

The NATO summit in Strasbourg, France came roughly a week after President Obama’s speech, and it reaffirmed NATO’s four principles guiding Afghanistan’s strategic vision: long-term commitment, Afghan leadership, a fully comprehensive strategy, and a regional approach. Specific outcomes included:

  • Further supporting the government of Afghanistan in the development of the integrated approach to strengthen synchronized civil-military efforts across Afghanistan.
  • Establishing a NATO Training Mission in Afghanistan to oversee training for the Afghan National Army and training and mentoring for the Afghan National Police; and providing operational mentoring and liaison teams to support enlarging the Afghan National Army to its current target of 134,000.
  • Assisting and supporting the Afghan National Security Forces to secure the upcoming election.
  • Expanding the role of the Afghan National Army Trust Fund.
  • Encouraging the strengthening of Afghan and Pakistani government cooperation.
  • Further engaging with all of Afghanistan’s neighbors in support of long-term regional security.

The goals articulated both by President Obama and at the NATO summit suggest a clearer strategy going forward. President Obama outlined both civil and military strategies, indicating that the United States is now in tune with what Europe has been saying for years: It is only through a combination of combat and nonmilitary activities that the Afghan government can become stronger and more credible, the Afghan economy can develop, and incentives can be created to prevent Afghans from joining the Taliban and other insurgent groups.

The fact that the U.S. and NATO strategies complement one another was the key success of the NATO summit. The similar priorities show that various countries are committed to a strong NATO alliance where countries are collectively invested in working together. It is also where major successes ended.

Thirty-two European countries are currently a part of the International Security Assistance Force (out of 42 countries total) and contribute troops to Afghanistan. European countries and the United States are the two main stakeholders in Afghanistan. Yet, the commitments at Strasbourg from individual European countries despite a common strategy were underwhelming. The main European outcomes included:

Troop contributions:

  • 5,000 troops total.
  • 3,000 troops for Afghan elections (to be deployed temporarily through the August 20 Afghan election).
  • 1,400 to 2,000 troops to train Afghan security forces.
  • 300 paramilitary police trainers.

Specific country commitments:

  • Spain: 600 soldiers.
  • Germany: 600 soldiers.
  • Poland: 600 soldiers.
  • United Kingdom: 900 soldiers.
  • Albania: 140.
  • Italy: 200 military trainers, 100 paramilitary police trainers.
  • Bulgaria, Estonia, Greece, Portugal, Turkey, Slovakia, and Belgium: military trainers.

European monetary commitments:

  • $100 million to finance training the Afghan National Army.
  • $500 million in civilian assistance/humanitarian aid.

Despite strategic consensus, it is unclear how effective these additional troop and monetary pledges will be. What is clear is that the European appetite for sending purely combat troops has diminished. The United States has discussed sending approximately 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan this year (including 900 civilians and 4,000 trainers and advisors to the Afghan army) compared to Europe’s 5,000. With regard to funding, U.S. military expenses are currently about $2 billion a month and increasing by about 60 percent this year. Europe’s commitment of an additional $600 million pales in comparison.

The parity between Europe and the United States was unlikely to equalize in Strasbourg. Yet, the United States seems poised to continue leading the effort in Afghanistan due to the amount of resources it has committed, albeit with a strategy more in line with European sensibilities.

While the concrete outcomes from the NATO summit were not particularly encouraging, Europe has shown robust commitments to development assistance and the deployment of civilian personnel in Afghanistan in the past. President Obama’s new strategy also emphasizes increasing the number of development and diplomacy professionals that will work closely with the military in Afghanistan.

Currently, the United States has 450 civilians in Afghanistan, while European countries have 488. According to Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development figures, European countries disbursed about $4.4 billion in official development assistance between 2001 and 2007, and the United States disbursed $5.8 billion. The European countries and the United States have shown similar levels of commitment in terms of nonmilitary resources. Europe has made civilian activities a priority for several years, while these activities are a newly articulated priority of the Obama administration.

We still do not know whether development assistance and civilian engagement can be linked with defense strategy and implemented in a country continually plagued by violence and war. It is also unclear whether development assistance levels will be sufficient to create a better quality of life for Afghans.

Going forward, the partnership between Europe and the United States in Afghanistan seems assured, if unequal. Likewise, the NATO and U.S. strategies suggest a clearer mission going forward. Despite the limited success of the Strasbourg meetings, several events of the summit suggest that deep political rifts still exist between NATO countries. Turkey initially objected to the new NATO secretary general Prime Minister Rasmussen of Denmark, and politicking followed between Presidents Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Barack Obama and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany. The issue of NATO accession of Georgia and Ukraine also remains tense.

What happens in Afghanistan is likely to affect the future of the NATO alliance. Whether the alliance remains strong when faced with challenges, and whether it can succeed in Afghanistan, remains to be seen.


Video: What Is Sustainable Security?

Report: Sustainable Security in Afghanistan

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