KABUL, Afghanistan—In a surprise move in mid-April, Germany announced it is ready to provide between 600 and 800 troops to the as yet undefined NATO training contingent that will replace the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in Afghanistan after it comes to an end in 2014. It was the first such announcement by any country, including the United States. Washington is in the process of negotiating with Kabul the bilateral strategic agreement that should lay out the framework for a reduced but continued presence of American troops starting in 2015.
Germany’s attempt to pull ahead of the pack is even more notable given Europe’s current climate of budgetary austerity. Voters across the euro zone, albeit less in Germany than elsewhere, are suffering from the economic crisis and are generally disinclined toward overseas military missions and foreign aid. After being elected in 2012, French President Francois Hollande immediately proceeded to withdraw all of his country’s combat troops from Afghanistan, more than two years ahead of schedule.
Germany’s early commitment to stay, alongside similar indications from Italy and confident pledges of economic support by the European Union, raises the question of what the long-term strategic interests of continental European powers are in Afghanistan. Clearly, European involvement in Afghanistan is not an effort to engage in the centuries-old Great Game, which now consumes regional powers such as Pakistan, India, China and Iran. Few European companies have invested in the country, and none on the scale of Chinese, Indian and Turkish firms in the mining sector, for instance. Economically speaking, Afghanistan will be interesting to Europeans only much later down the line.