NATO countries are poised to add 7,000 soldiers to the 30,000-troop US escalation in Afghanistan, providing a cover of multilateralism for the Obama administration and the NATO commander, US General Stanley McChrystal. The NATO decision is expected to be ratified January 28 at a conference called by the United Kingdom, Germany, France, the Karzai administration and the United Nations Afghan Mission (UNAM).
To assuage European public hesitation, McChrystal is describing the troop surge for the first time as a step towards negotiating a political settlement with the Taliban. The London paper points out that “the prospect that an eight-year war could end with some Taliban leaders in power represents a remarkable turnaround” in US and NATO policy.
While NATO escalates its troop commitment, the London conference is billed as a display of “soft power” that will stabilize Afghanistan. One of the conference sponsors, the discredited Afghan president Hamid Karzai, will ask the conference for a $1 billion commitment to lure Taliban fighters onto the Kabul regime’s payroll, a replica of the payments to 99,000 Sunni insurgents during the Iraq surge of 2007-8.
Afghanistan and Iraq are not identical conflicts, however. Iraq’s Sunnis were a 20 percent minority fighting a majority Shi’a government and army, which the United States installed in power. In Afghanistan, the Taliban are powerful among the 45 percent Pashtun population, and cannot be defeated by Karzai’s dysfunctional government or the northern Hazara, Tajik or Uzbek minorities. The situation resembles an ethnic-based stalemate, which Secretary of Defense Robert Gates acknowledged this week , in saying the Taliban are woven into the “political fabric” of Afghanistan.
One reason for the dovish hints is that European and Canadian public opinion strongly oppose the escalation. In Germany 71 percent are opposed, and in the UK 56 percent . In France, 82 percent are against increased troop commitments. Canada is committed to withdrawing troops in 2011, and pressure is building for other NATO nations to follow.
Obama’s escalation is causing increased US and NATO casualties, a toll that is sure to increase rapidly as more troops arrive. In January, twenty-five Americans and twelve Europeans and Canadians have died, compared to twenty-four Americans and nine Europeans and Canadians during the same month last year. The 57 percent spike shows that the Afghan “fighting season” is becoming year-around rather than concentrated in the summer months.