The Berlin donor’s conference on Afghanistan resulted in good news in the form of commitments of US$8.2 billion in aid pledges over the next three years. But the confidence resulting from the Berlin commitments could be undercut by the reluctance of donors – especially but not exclusively European – to make commitments to security that match those for reconstruction. There were no such long-term security commitments made. Rather, the European interest in “exit strategies” from their security mission was disconcerting, especially following the violence that occurred in Kosovo earlier this year, which European military forces on the ground proved unsuccessful in preventing.
In the short term, there are nonetheless a number of encouraging signs of European commitment. NATO is in command of ISAF in Kabul, though plans for expansion have fallen by the wayside. The new Netherlands AH-64D Apache helicopters demonstrated their capability over Kabul (Radio Netherlands, April 17). NATO has committed to organize and deploy an additional five Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), which will join the large German PRT currently deployed under a UN mandate in Konduz (Jane’s Defense Week, April 7). Even France’s nuclear aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle, has returned to the region, launching fighters to support French special operation forces participating in the offensive against Al-Qaeda and Taliban remnants in southern Afghanistan (Le Monde, April 7).
But behind each of these events – good and important though each may be – are disconcerting signs of just how hollow Europe’s military forces are and how limited is their ability to contribute to Afghan security. ISAF expansion has been prevented by a lack of funding and of quality troops. The AH-64D deployment had Luxembourg provide funding – including chartering a Ukrainian An-124 transport aircraft – because the Netherlands had limited operating funds available (Financial Times, March 31).
The five NATO PRTs will surely do good work, but it has been announced that they are to go to provinces north of the Hindu Kush (NY Times, April 27). This means they will not be operating in the areas where enemy forces have deterred UN and NGO reconstruction efforts in the south and east. These areas appear to have the greatest need of the PRT’s ability to improve the life of the local population while providing its own security. The Charles de Gaulle’s deployment proved a brief one, though no doubt appreciated. More telling was the fact that France’s 200-250 special operations personnel, based at Spin Boldak on the border with Pakistan, have had to rely on U.S. helicopters for mobility and resupply. When France’s defense minister, Michele Alliot-Marie, visited them in December, she had to be transported by the U.S. Army (Liberation, April 13).
While all these problems are addressable in the short term, the larger problem remains. There is an extensive need for well-trained European troops in Afghanistan (as well as in Kosovo, Bosnia, Iraq, Haiti, and many other contingencies world-wide). The training and quality of the troops is more important than the numbers. The events at Srebrenica in Bosnia in 1995 are just one of the many reminders that using inadequate troops to provide security – regardless of how good their “brand name” might be – is much worse than using no troops. The problem is that these donor countries (and their electorates) are unwilling to invest in their armed forces. The trends are still towards further cutbacks of force structure, equipment, and training alike.
The “gold standard” of European out-of-area military operations is the British infantry battalion. While its equipment tends to be markedly inferior to that of its U.S. counterparts, its excellent training and experience and low-level leadership is highly valuable both in peacekeeping and in counter-guerilla operations. Yet, despite the need for these units, London newspapers have had the usual leaks of their numbers being reduced as it was determined whether further force structure cuts would be politically painful. The answer, it appears, has been negative (Daily Telegraph, April 1-2).
This is not good news for Afghanistan. While the new Afghan National Army (ANA) and its U.S. advisors apparently did well in their recent deployment to Herat during the violence there, it will take many years and much investment before Afghans can be sure that the ANA will not shatter into factional pieces if faced with a major internal conflict. Until the Afghans can provide their own security in a turbulent political environment, the commitments to invest money made at Berlin – though vitally important for the future of Afghanistan — are liable to be undercut by an unwillingness to make comparable commitments for a security presence in Afghanistan.