Obama to turn to Europe for more support in the war in Afghanistan
Having vowed to reinvigorate the effort in Afghanistan, the president-elect faces questions of how to solicit more support from European countries, particularly Germany and France, who have thus far been reluctant to send their forces into heavy fighting.Washington -- American President-elect Barack Obama, who has repeatedly said he considers Afghanistan the central front in defeating terrorism, has vowed to strengthen the effort there after taking office on Tuesday.
Obama campaigned on withdrawing American troops from Iraq and redeploying them to Afghanistan, where US and NATO forces are struggling to cope with an insurgent Taliban and violence that, during the last year, has rivaled the bloodshed in Iraq.
Obama has stated that President George W. Bush lost focus in the war on terrorism by turning his attention to Saddam Hussein's regime after the Taliban was ousted following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
"The central front in the war on terror is not in Iraq, and it never was," Obama said during the campaign. "The central front is in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the terrorists who hit us on 9/11 are still plotting attacks seven years later."
Obama is expected to seek more support in Afghanistan from his European counterparts, including from German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Sarkozy has already signaled a willingness to add several hundred more troops, but their use would remain restricted.
Germany and France have nearly 3,000 troops each in Afghanistan, but they are limited to peacekeeping, rebuilding and training missions, and are banned from participating in the heavy fighting in southern and eastern Afghanistan.
The US has about 30,000 soldiers in Afghanistan and along with the British, Canadians, Danes and Dutch, has shouldered the brunt of the fight against the Taliban. With more deployments on the way, the US presence in Afghanistan could double by mid-2009.
The Bush administration has been frustrated by the unwillingness of other NATO allies to send more soldiers or lift restrictions on their use. The majority of French and German citizens oppose their military presence in Afghanistan and it will not be easy for Obama to persuade Merkel or Sarkozy to do more, even after Bush and his unpopular policies are gone.
Merkel, presiding over a "grand coalition" between her conservative CDU party and the SPD on the left, is facing re-election in September.
Obama's popularity in Europe might not be enough for her to go along with more troops and risk the criticism from her main opponent, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Days after Obama's election, Merkel made it clear she will not yield to pressure to send troops to fight and will have the same response she had to Bush's requests.
For Obama to succeed on the issue in Europe, he will have to maintain a sustained dialogue to persuade the German and French public that it is in their national security interests to ensure that NATO prevails in Afghanistan, rather than to simply make demands, said Jackson Janes, an analyst of US-European relations at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University. "Obama needs to get into their heads that we are not just talking about Bush now, we are talking about a strategic framework," Janes said.
On the other hand, after years of complaining about Bush, Europe should show a desire to help Obama tackle the vast foreign policy challenges he will face after he takes office, Janes said. "There has to be a willingness on the part of the European leadership to want to help this man."
Meanwhile, the Pentagon has been reviewing the strategy in Afghanistan and could outline a new approach after Obama takes office. The plans will likely employ some of the counterinsurgency strategies that have been used successfully in Iraq.
Ultimately, prevailing in Afghanistan largely depends on whether Pakistan can clamp down on the Taliban militants who find refuge along the Afghan-Pakistan rugged border areas and launch attacks on US and NATO forces.
Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said the Pentagon is working on a comprehensive approach that includes ways to counter the Taliban's use of Pakistan's remote, mountainous frontier regions to mount cross-border raids on coalition forces.