NATO Reaction to Afghanistan Call

There are a number of revealing aspects to the reactions of various NATO allies to President Barack Obama’s call for more troops for Afghanistan. First, last week’s reported telephone call to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi makes more sense in light of Italy’s initial signals that it will deploy between 500-1,500 additional troops to Afghanistan. The troops will actually be redeployed from other theaters of operation (Kosovo and Lebanon) according to previous drawdown schedules there. So nothing immediate (the second half of 2010), but probably in line with the U.S. deployment schedule. It’s also a bold political move on Berlusconi’s part, given Italy’s reaction to the deaths of six Italian soldiers in Kabul in September, which included calls for withdrawal.

(As an aside, for a number of reasons that I could never have predicted but make intuitive sense, Berlusconi could be on his way to becoming Obama’s man in Europe. As an odd man out on the continent, he has the most to gain from building a closer relationship with Obama. And given Italy’s peripheral status compared to the closer U.S. relationships with Britain, Germany and probably even France, he is the easiest EU leader to incentivize.)

Poland, too, has signaled it will add 600 troops, as has Britain (although I’ve seen suggestions of both for months, and wonder whether there isn’t a bit of double-dipping in terms of troop counts here). But Poland’s decision is significant, because it comes in the aftermath of the Obama administration’s missile defense decision, as well as Poland’s increasingly vocal commitment to EU defense. It suggests that NATO (read: the U.S.) and EU defense will remain the twin pillars of Poland’s strategic posture, belying the alarmist criticism of the missile defense decision.

With regard to France and Germany, both have made it clear that they will not be rushed into a decision before the upcoming Afghanistan conference set for late January. That conference is significantly focused on formulating a transition (read: exit) strategy for the Afghanization of the war effort. So while both Pakistan and Afghanistan might have been unsettled by Obama’s inclusion of a drawdown timeframe in his address Monday night, that might end up being crucial for the continued commitment of the European allies. Depending on the outcome of that conference, look for France and Germany to add some token increases, probably to training efforts for the Afghan army and police.

It also suggests that whether or not the July 2011 date articulated by Obama is taken seriously Stateside, it will be here in Europe. And that, too, could have an impact on the strategic calculations down the line. Because if at that time, Obama faces the same pressure to escalate the U.S. involvment as he did now, it will mean an escalation that also must take into account replacing European troops as they leave.

The more significant NATO development will be the response to Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s request to fully integrate European troops into the NATO chain of command — that is, to remove European capitals from the operational decision-making process on the ground in Afghanistan. As much as troop numbers, that will reflect Europe’s buy in to the new strategy.

Finally, as Brian Katulis noted yesterday, this a debate in Europe taking place exclusively in policymaking circles, and even there, without a huge amount of urgency. In the media, it’s treated as an American news story, unless and until one of the Euroopean nations suffers casualties, at which point it serves to briefly focus attention on the consistent unpopularity of a continued military involvement there. Fortunately for Obama, whatever spike of opposition registers quickly passes, as illustrated by Italy in September, Britain more recently, following the killing of five British military trainers by an Afghan policeman they were mentoring, and France in August 2008. That has allowed European leaders to continue to make politically unpopular decisions. But that carte blanche won’t last forever.