international analysis and commentary

Obama’s ‘unilateralism’ in Afghanistan: what it means for Europe

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President Obama’s decision on December 1st to send additional troops to Afghanistan confirms a tendency inherited from the Bush era: to act unilaterally without consulting America’s allies. This may be hardly surprising in light of the overall size of the US commitment and the daunting challenge of coordination, but it definitely marks a U-turn from the much heralded “new multilateralism” of the Obama administration.

This approach – a sort of “soft unilateralism” – is dangerous for America because, as the last eight years show, unilateralism (in any form) makes it very hard to recognize wrong decisions and reverse them. And the US needs strong and credible partners to find an honorable way out from Afghanistan.

To be fair, there are problems on the European side, too. The EU could provide crucial political support, if not a great number of new troops, but even this would be tricky: EU member states, at varying degrees, are conducting their Afghan missions eyeing their bilateral relations with the US rather than stronger EU roles. As a result, divisions in Europe are deepening and this ultimately reduces the overall support that the US can get from its European allies. Besides being important in itself, Afghanistan is hence the test case of how the US and Europe will manage their relationship in the newly emerging balance of power. The challenge for Europe is to act as a credible partner: there are dangers and opportunities in this.

The dangers of soft unilateralism
The risks of Obama’s “soft unilateralism” should be clear. The US troop increase brings about a de facto Americanization of the NATO mission. The only area where the coalition’s presence will be relatively balanced is Helmand, where the UK deploys a 9,500-strong force, the second largest contingent in Afghanistan. The Americanization of the mission will streamline operations, but in any case it will produce results only if the US strategy to fight back the insurgents is rightly devised and if the “reconciliation” strategy works. While more effective counterinsurgency can be incorporated in NATO procedures, the reconciliation policy has not been openly discussed so far. Therefore, as willing as they may be to support the new American effort, the EU allies will find it hard to commit troops in an unclear framework. In fact, the Netherlands and Canada – whose troops have deployed in some of the most dangerous areas – have already concluded that the effort is not sustainable, and should withdraw between 2010 and 2011. Serious concerns in the past have also been voiced by countries that have placed their troops under direct US command, such as Poland and Romania.

Another example of how recent US unilateralism affects the European counterparts is also apparent from the row over the latest Afghan elections. Some EU countries have supported the new US approach by harshly criticizing Karzai, while others feared this may reduce the power of the one man set to win the elections in any case. The final result has been almost depressing: an enraged Karzai, who is still President and now needs to act tough vis-à-vis the coalition to regain his prestige; a leader of the opposition (Abdullah Abdullah) who has lost political capital by pushing for a second round he eventually did not get; a costly feud inside the UN mission and, what is worse, a divided international community that, with its lack of coordination, has further lost credibility in the eyes of the Afghan population.

Yet, an even more critical point in the new strategy for Euro-American relations is the buildup of the Afghan armed forces required by the “transition strategy”. Recent experience suggests that plans in this sector are seldom fully successful.

In 2001 the US pledged to rebuild the Afghan National Army – ANA and, since then, it has made serious efforts in pursuit of that goal. And yet, in spite of growing resources spent on equipment and training, the performance of the ANA has remained poor. This shows that no amount of equipment can turn soldiers who get $120 per month into loyal combatants: the incentive to desert, sell their own weapons or switch sides is just too high. As of now, the ANA is dependent on foreign funding and direct operational support.

Moreover, a continuous search for an ethnic balance in the ANA has produced a delicate distribution of command posts, but as ANA numbers grow, it will be impossible to follow that rule. The real issue, therefore, is not just the number of Afghan troops, but quotas and deals between the various factions. And since communities still feel they should count on themselves and specific foreign sponsors for security, local groups will continue to be pawns of a wider game unless a mutual agreement is found in the region. No number of local troops will guarantee security per se. Yet, here too, allies in Europe are being requested to contribute troops in a scheme on which they do not have full visibility.

An open discussion on this dimension has never taken place partly because Europe has been a very shaky counterpart in the construction of viable security forces. In 2007 the EU has inherited from Germany the police reform program managed through EUPOL, a civilian mission that trains higher cadres but certainly does not send trainers to fight along policemen – as the US would have wished. As a result Germany, Italy and the UK have sparred over top positions in EUPOL to keep an open channel of dialogue with the US. As that proved difficult, however,  EU countries have preferred to develop a bilateral program with the US, by “plugging in” their forces to a training scheme launched by the US military and recently turned into the new NATO Training Mission in Afghanistan – a replication of the NATO Training Mission in Iraq.

The bilateral response of EU countries to American “on-the-ground unilateralism” could backfire as, under the cloak of stronger co-operation with the US, it actually encourages only short-term visibility, fragmenting European efforts and offering EU governments too easy an alternative to lengthy negotiations for a stronger and unified EU profile. At the same time, this also damages the US by not asking the though questions – on the role of Karzai, on the reconciliation strategy, on the buildup of Afghan forces – thereby reducing the scope for much needed critical thinking.

A truly European option
Things do not need to continue this way. Under the Lisbon Treaty and with the creation of an External Action Service, a possibility exists to define a common EU policy that complements, rather than ratify, US policies.

The development of British policy over the External Action Service is crucial. Not just because Lord Ashton is British (key positions on foreign policy and information flows had already been secured by the UK in both the Commission and Council Secretariat in any case), but because among EU Member States the UK is the only one that can boast an effective special relationship with the US. That relationship is currently under severe strain. The UK is finding it increasingly difficult to understand US decision-making on Afghanistan. Yet, it is the only country with the ability to show the rest of Europe how to deal with the US more effectively. Uniting foreign diplomats’ skills and British experience under Lord Ashton could empower EU representatives on the ground and gain the trust of the other member states.

Whether this becomes a viable course certainly depends on the position of the other key member states, beginning with France and Germany. But more generally, individual countries must eventually realize that they are going to be more influential and better off by joining forces on foreign policy and defense rather than battling it out over their respective rank. Although this has been seldom discussed to date, the evolution of the Afghan mission will accelerate or hinder the emergence of a true European foreign policy.

Further reading
A year and a half for a new Afghan war di Roberto Menotti
Obama’s dangerous Afghan Gamble di Fawaz A. Gerges
Nebbia sull’Hindukush di Emanuele Giordana