The World from Berlin 'Afghanistan Hasn't Yet Become NATO's Vietnam'

President Obama is sending more US troops to Afghanistan. But will Europe follow suit? The topic is sure to come up as NATO defense ministers meet this week in Poland. Commentators warn that, prior to troop pledges, it is time for an honest reassessment of the mission.


NATO defense ministers on the European side of the Atlantic had been hoping for a somewhat relaxed time this week in Krakow, Poland. The focus of discussion will, of course, be Afghanistan. Nevertheless, until this week few expected any surprises at the two-day summit, which begins on Thursday.

US President Barack Obama, though, had other plans. On Tuesday, he announced that he was sending an additional 17,000 troops to Afghanistan and held out the possibility that -- once Washington completes the ongoing overhaul of its Afghanistan strategy -- 13,000 more might be sent as well. Not only that, but the Obama administration, which sees Afghanistan as the central battlefield in the war against global terrorism, expects US allies to pony up as well.

"It is a new administration and the administration is prepared, as the president's decision made clear … to make additional commitments to Afghanistan," US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told reporters travelling with him on his flight to Poland. "But there clearly will be expectations that the allies must do more as well."

It is no secret that the Obama administration would like to see NATO member states in Europe agree to send more troops. Both Gates and his spokesman Geoff Morrell have dropped plenty of hints that additional troop commitments would be most welcome. That, though, isn't likely to happen. European capitals have for years shown a reluctance to send more soldiers, often hampered by a voting public that has long since lost enthusiasm for the war.

Germany too has struggled to balance obligations to the NATO alliance with voter ennui. Berlin recently upped its troop commitment by 1,000 to 4,500 and pledged an additional 600 to provide security for elections set for the end of this summer. But with Chancellor Angela Merkel herself up for re-election this fall, there is likely little more that her government can do.

Gates recognizes the problems facing his allies. On Wednesday he said "I think the likelihood of getting the allies to commit significant numbers of additional troops is not very great." Still, he said that there is plenty of work to be done when in comes to training Afghan police and fighting the rampant drug trafficking in the country -- a suggestion that will likely make the Krakow meeting a bit more tense that originally expected. German commentators on Thursday take a closer look.

The center-left daily Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"Afghanistan hasn't yet become NATO's Vietnam. But to avoid such a scenario, the alliance has to undertake a detailed examination of its engagement. First and foremost, NATO has to bid farewell to the idea that, as is often said internally, 'the fate of NATO will be decided in Afghanistan.' This sentence is nonsense. A defeat or even a withdrawal without real success would certainly plunge the alliance into turbulence. But stubbornly staying the course out of fear of this scenario, blindly hoping that the amount of troops and quality of weapons will one day prevail, isn't a strategy. Such logic bears witness to a dangerous degree of helplessness."

"NATO has to find the courage to rethink everything. Instead of, as will happen this week with alliance defense ministers gathered in Krakow, busying themselves with demands for more troops, the member states should take a realistic look at the situation in Afghanistan and then decide what can be achieved and, most importantly, how large a commitment the alliance is prepared to make. It is time to abandon the illusion -- especially popular in Germany -- that the Afghanistan mission is one primarily focused on redevelopment and on providing a safe place for the delicate flower of a halfway free society to flourish."

"The new American president is undertaking a fundamental examination of the Afghanistan mission at the moment. That makes good sense…. Europe, though, has to develop its own point of view. It is no longer a question of making minor adjustments on the path to finding the correct policy. Rather, Europeans have to ask themselves whether they have truly recognized the severity of the situation and whether they are prepared to make radical changes to once again become a proactive military and political force instead of merely reacting."

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"Why is it that the Western allies, who are responsible for training of security forces in Afghanistan, are not coming any closer to accomplishing their mission? Either there is a lack of determination or a lack of political seriousness. Even if the European NATO nations feel pressured by Obama's intention to send an additional 17,000 troops to Afghanistan, the effort in Afghanistan has to finally be optimized and, if necessary, strengthened. The starting point has to be an improvement in the security situation. Without security, the country will once again fall prey to the Taliban."

The influential Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung writes:

"President Obama has decreed the strengthening of the US contingent in Afghanistan by almost 50 percent. That reflects his conviction that the most important front in the battle against terrorism is not to be found in Iraq, but rather in the Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan. Critics in the US Congress say that former US President George W. Bush failed to provide a lucid strategy and clear aims for the seven-year-old war. The fact that Obama has now ordered a troop increase before his ongoing re-examination of the Afghanistan war has been completed has been explained away with references to the urgent need for more soldiers. But the worry remains that Obama could sink into an Afghanistan morass similar to that which his predecessor stumbled into in Iraq."

-- Charles Hawley; 12:15 p.m. CET

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