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For Europe in Afghanistan, Long-term Commitment Despite Lack of Interests

May 22, 2013

Originally published in the World Politics Review

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.

Rather, the European desire for a continued presence in Afghanistan is driven by goals of regional stability, national prestige and long-running foreign policy principles.

“The arguments I hear are that there is a long-standing friendship between Afghanistan and Germany and that energy resources in Central Asia are of tremendous importance to the German economy,” says Conrad Schetter, senior research fellow at the Center for Development Studies of the University of Bonn and an expert on Afghanistan. Additionally, he says, Germans also emphasize their commitment to NATO, and the fact that, to Germany, Afghanistan represents a key pawn on a complicated chessboard of conflicts, stretching from Morocco to South Asia, that threaten Europe. “They are a series of diffuse arguments,” says Schetter. “Only when you add them up do they explain the position of the German government.”

Luciano Pezzotti, Italy’s ambassador in Kabul, makes a similarly complex case for his country’s planned presence beyond 2014. “There are not too many purely bilateral reasons to stay here,” he acknowledges. Afghanistan will develop slowly, and its economic potential can only be thought of in the long term. What matter, says Pezzotti, are “the collective goals” of the international community, which came here 12 years ago to fight al-Qaida and must prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a safe haven for terrorists. “Being a country that aspires to have international responsibilities, Italy must play its part,” Pezzotti adds.

Though underappreciated, European countries’ need to maintain international clout during this period of internal strife in the EU is another factor behind their involvement in Afghanistan. Even after pulling out from Afghanistan early, France did not disappear from the world stage, but dove headfirst into Mali.

“The threat of al-Qaida and of a return of international terrorists is often mentioned, though al-Qaida is now everywhere but in Afghanistan,” says Riccardo Redaelli, professor of geopolitics at the Catholic University in Milan and a keen observer of Afghanistan. “Security is [a way] for Western governments to ‘sell’ [involvement in Afghanistan] to their citizens, who don’t want to spend money abroad in a time of crisis.”

However, a fault line is emerging between, on one side, European officials, policy experts and NGO workers who remain committed to the reconstruction of Afghanistan and want to see it through, and, on the other, a majority of weary voters suffering from “ISAF-fatigue.” This is now the biggest threat to the future stability of Afghanistan, which remains dependent on international support, particularly for development.

“From the Germans there is a commitment to try and keep aid around current levels,” says Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent think tank based in Berlin and Kabul. “This would be good if it happened, but financial constraints remain, and everything depends on how parliament votes.”

Under pressure from their constituencies, legislative bodies across Europe are attaching more and more strings to their military and civilian aid to Afghanistan.

“In Tokyo, the international community pledged an exceptional level of support,” says Ambassador Vygaudas Usackas, head of the EU delegation in Kabul. “In order to justify it, Afghans need to go the extra mile; they need to help us help them.” Although the EU does not have a military profile here—participation in the ISAF mission is decided at the level of national governments—it is an important political and development actor. Brussels is currently in the process of approving its seven-year budget. Usackas makes clear that whatever support will be pledged to Kabul will be contingent on transparent and inclusive elections being carried out in 2014, a convincing effort on the part of the Afghan government to root out corruption and continued support for human rights, in particular women’s rights—none of which can be taken for granted at this moment.

There is, however, one characteristic of European decision-making that plays to Afghanistan’s advantage at a time when the U.S. is eager to extricate itself from a decade of war in order to shift its strategic focus to Asia: a tendency toward continuity in foreign policy despite internal upheavals and political uncertainty. “Italy has had some 60 governments since the birth of the Republic, yet I believe we have had a pretty stable foreign policy,” says Pezzotti.

Now that the clunky, slow-to-start but even slower-to-stop European machine is in motion in Afghanistan, it is likely that it will remain at least partially engaged for the foreseeable future.

Valentina Pasquali is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to Global Finance Magazine and to Aspenia Online of the Aspen Institute Italia. Her work has also appeared in Foreign Policy, Global Post and the Washington Post Travel, among other publications.


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