There are few certainties for Afghanistan as the NATO troop withdrawal moves into high gear, but one thing is sure: Continental Europeans have a dimmer prognosis for what can be accomplished than do their US and British counterparts.
As they assess Afghanistan, the Europeans see an economic depression looming as Western aid and military spending evaporate; corruption, already endemic, is escalating dangerously as Afghan power brokers milk the war economy for every last penny before it dries up; security remains elusive — not just because of the Taliban, but because ethnically based militias are reactivating across large parts of the country.
The Americans and British, however, emphasize potential: The Afghan security forces are improving; Afghan President Hamid Karzai has pledged not to run again, making it possible that there will be a credible election; and the Taliban appear open to peace talks, just not right now.
These disparate outlooks, laid out in interviews with foreign officials in Kabul over the past two weeks, are more than a matter of semantics. They are fundamental differences in the allies’ conclusions about how much has been achieved and how much more should be spent on Afghanistan.
That question will be front and center at the NATO summit meeting in Chicago that started yesterday and is focused on getting commitments from NATO member countries and others to finance the Afghan security forces for 10 years after the NATO mission ends in 2014.
“We have a lot of European countries that are in economic crisis, that are facing elections and whose citizens are fatigued with the war after 11 years. So for us coming up with substantial money for the Afghan National Security Forces, it is not so clear a priority for us,” one European diplomat said.
Like others interviewed for this article, the diplomat spoke about the aid discussions on the condition of anonymity.
Everyone believes that at the end of the day — in fact by the end of the conference — the aid pledges will be there to fill out a goal of US$4.1 billion a year, over the next 10 years, to help Afghanistan maintain its security forces. The Americans plan to provide roughly two-thirds of that.
Still, for many European countries, the money is being given reluctantly, most of all because they would prefer to spend on health clinics and schools rather than armies.
Even as they are agreeing at the Chicago conference to commit the money for security help, they worry that doing so will make their parliaments reluctant to give more at a Tokyo conference in July that will focus on future Afghanistan reconstruction projects. Also, in more candid moments, some wish aloud that the money could stay available for countries with more chance for success than Afghanistan.
“What dominates the agenda of Karzai and the US is security — the military strategy, the night raids, detention and the rest,” another European diplomat said. “So no matter how much we are going to push the Afghans to address issues of governance and corruption, it’s not going to happen. But these are things we care about and the capitals care about.”
The EU’s foreign affairs council released a resolution on Monday last week, in advance of the Chicago meeting, emphasizing that the Afghan government needed to make a “genuine effort” on governance and reducing corruption.