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Europe’s Afghan Backlash

Britain has announced that it would be pulling 1,600 troops out of Iraq and the Dutch have said that they will follow suit. This presents a sharp blow to the Bush administration and its efforts in the war in Iraq.

The move signals that Europe is growing tired of American adventurism in the Middle East. Britain and the Netherlands, who are following the British lead, are not the only European countries that have grown weary of the United States presence in Iraq, but most countries don’t have troops that they can withdraw to show their displeasure. Instead, the European countries that lack troops in Iraq may illustrate their dislike for the United States in another place: Afghanistan.

The coalition government of Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi has fallen apart because of a disagreement over foreign policy in Afghanistan. The Italian Left was unwilling to extend the deployment of 1,900 Italian soldiers in Afghanistan. Prodi tried to force the issue by taking it to a vote, which subsequently led to the coalition’s demise and forced his resignation. What the United States should be worried about, however, is not this singular setback, but the fact that this might be a harbinger of future impediments to come.

In December 2006, France said that it would pull its 200-soldier Special Forces unit out of Afghanistan. The Dutch have said that they will not stay beyond the summer of 2008. Even America’s continental neighbor Canada has said that it will not extend its troops beyond its commitment of 2009.

Germany, much like many European countries, has repeatedly refused to use its troops in any way besides training Afghani forces, International Security Assistance Force operations in the north and reconstruction operations. Are these refusals a lack of interest in Afghanistan, a loss of faith in America’s ability to succeed, or a representation of Europe’s growing frustration with the United States?

The United States has been very vocal about NATO members stepping up and providing support to Afghanistan, but it has seen little response. While the United States has committed $10.6 billion to Afghanistan reconstruction efforts, Europe has pledged significantly less, about $777 million over four years. This European aid is intended for strengthening institutions and the rule of law. While these are much needed funds, they are a small amount compared to the U.S. contribution.

When looking at the limitations of European troop missions and economic support together, it becomes clear that the European continent is slowly pulling back from Afghanistan. Thus, the collapse of the Prodi coalition may be the first, of many, setbacks for Afghanistan in Europe.

But why is there this backlash? Europe sees the United States as an expansionist force that is trying to clumsily extend its reach around the world. While most European nations did not agree with the initial invasion of Iraq, now they have simply has lost trust that the United States can be successful.

Moreover, Europe has to deal with the possibility that the extremists in Iraq might come to their countries. Many European nations, including France, Britain and Germany, have large Muslim populations and the possibility for extremist elements to bring the training that they learn in Iraq to European doorsteps is greater than bringing it to the United States.

Another problem is that Europeans are increasingly seeing Iraq and Afghanistan as one issue. Afghanistan was originally viewed as a U.N.-mandated, NATO-supported mission. As the United States continues its combat operations in support of the “global war on terror” in the south of Afghanistan, it looks too much like the combat operations in Iraq. As Iraq fails and as the Taliban resurges, too many Europeans are drawing parallels between Afghanistan and Iraq.

The U.S. administration has no one to blame but themselves; by developing the catchphrase of the “global war on terror” they have muddled opinions of different operations into one singular endeavor. Originally, the United States developed the phrase so that people would associate Iraq with the initial successes in Afghanistan; now that has backfired and people associate the failures of Iraq with Afghanistan.

To illustrate this point, Massismo D’Alema, the current Italian foreign minister and former prime minister, said while debating the Italian troop extension, “There is a profound difference between the military operations in Afghanistan, approved by the United Nations, and those in Iraq.”

Unfortunately, the Italian Parliament did not see this distinction and promptly denied the extension. Subsequently, the Italian government collapsed. While this sad event happened in Italy, it is easy to see similar feelings throughout Europe. The distinction between Iraq and Afghanistan is fading in European minds, and as the Taliban becomes stronger the desire for Europeans to withdraw from another perceived American quagmire will only increase.

RICHARD MAY is a Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow at the World Security Institute’s Center for Defense Information. He served as an officer in the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division in Afghanistan and Iraq.

 

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