Ninety minutes from now, Barack Obama will give his Afghanistan speech, and almost certainly say he wants NATO allies to send 10,000 more troops to match 30,000 new U.S. personnel. It’s a bit iffy, but my guess is that he’ll get about half that number from the Europeans. This will make everyone feel good about transatlantic cooperation after a few months of stories about how America doesn’t love Europe any more.
But, as I argue in a new piece for the Indian magazine Pragati this week, the fact that NATO will cough up a few more troops shouldn’t conceal the lack of a real strategic debate in Europe about Afghanistan:
The quality of strategic debate on Afghan affairs in EU capitals is far lower than that in Washington. “We ask what pulling out of Afghanistan would mean for the transatlantic alliance,” one respected French strategist admits, “but not what it’d do to Afghanistan.”
He could go further. Although European commentators are typically well-informed about Pakistan’s instability, they rarely put “AfPak” in a wider strategic regional context.
How would a NATO failure in Afghanistan affect relations between China and India? What impact would it have on Russia’s Central Asian ambitions, or Iran’s defiance of the West? These are not questions you are likely to hear seriously discussed in Europe.
Why so? Here are a few possible reasons:
Defence intellectuals and politicians share an underlying duty of care for soldiers in the field. If—as many European observers have concluded—those soldiers are being killed for a lost cause in Afghanistan, it would be immoral not to prioritise their welfare and sacrifices.
But power politics has to be factored in too. And the Afghan case confronts Europeans with the harsh fact that their global power is diminished. Yes, they could fly more troops to Central Asia. But they would still be secondary players (by a very long distance) to the Americans—and China and India would still have far greater influence in the region.
European analysts who see Afghanistan in transatlantic terms (“What does this do to NATO?”) are in denial on this point. The future of Afghanistan is clearly of far greater significance to the triangular strategic relationship between China, India and the United States than it is to European affairs. But no-one likes to admit they are a second-order issue.
I’m not the first person to argue that the EU should measure its global influence by Asian metrics. I’ve previously cited the work of James Rogers here – he focuses on maritime security, and the Indian Ocean in particular. James blogs at European Geostrategy – a new outlet with lots of good contributors – and so does Luis Simon, who has been thinking about the EU’s place in Eurasia. I recommend their stuff.
But I also recommend another new piece by Tomas Valasek of CER on European policy towards Iran – which obviously rivals Afghanistan as a test of Europe’s relevance in the Eurasian wilds. He has a warning for the EU’s new foreign policy chief:
Catherine Ashton, like Javier Solana before her, will be expected to maintain dialogue with Tehran while the UN debates sanctions, and after the Security Council agrees a new regime. But one wonders if this is the EU’s last hurrah on Iran. If the combination of sanctions and talks fails, and if Israel strikes Iran’s nuclear facilities, Tehran will certainly call off the EU-led talks. The other choice before the world is to start working on containing a nuclear Iran, by making its neighbours feel secure (so as to discourage them from building nuclear weapons themselves). But this will almost certainly be a job mainly for the US, rather than the EU. So while Baroness Ashton will spend a lot of time on Iran at the beginning of her term, the EU may gradually lose its leading role.
We can add that to the list of “scenarios we aren’t thinking enough about”…