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Washington, D.C.: What is the approximate ratio of NATO/U.S. troops in Afghanistan now? Could you clarify why NATO is more involved in Afghanistan than Iraq? Thank you.
Ivo H. Daalder: There are currently about 33,000 troops in the NATO mission in Afghanistan, about one-third of which are American. (An additional 8,000 or so US troops continue to operate outside of NATO command, primarily in counter-terrorism operations).
The reason why NATO is far more involved in Afghanistan than it is Iraq is simple — many NATO countries did not approve of the war when it began. Not so Afghanistan. After the 9/11 attacks, the Alliance actually invoked its collective defense provisions — the very first time it did so in its history. The Bush administration decided that it wanted to fight this war larely on its own (with token involvement of some close allies), and so it rejected the offer of a NATO role. Even when the Taliban was toppled, the administration was leery of too much NATO involvement and opted to give it a stabilizing role focused on Kabul alone. Over time, it has become clear that the effort to stabilize Afghanistan requires many more troops than the US has been able to supply, and the role of NATO has expanded accordingly. Last month, the US even put the bulk of its forces in the country under NATO command. This is now a NATO operation and responsibility in a way that Iraq never was nor ever will be.
Arlington, Va.: We hear a lot about domestic support (or lack thereof) for the war in Iraq in places like Britain and Italy. Is the war in Afghanistan generally much less controversial? It seems that way at least in the U.S.
Ivo H. Daalder: This is an important question. Thank you. I’ve spent the last three months in Europe (in fact, I’m coming to you from Italy as we speak), and I’ve been struck how controversial the European involvement in Afghanistan still is. Governments are, in the main, foresquare behind the operation. (This contrasts with IRaq, where even the governments that were supportive of the operation are all pulling their troops out. Italy has almost completed its troop withdrawal; Poland has announced it will be down to zero troops by the end of next year; and Britain announced that it will pull out “thousands” of troops next year as well).
On the street, however, Afghanistan is still highly controversial. Part of the reason is that any operation in which the US is involved is controversial in Europe. Distrust of Washington — and the Bush administration’s true motives — is exceedingly high everywhere. Part of the reason, too, is that Afghanistan is turning into a very dangerous mission. Nearly every NATO country has suffered casualties in the fighting — with Canada, Holland, and Britain bearing the brunt, as their forces are doing most of the fighting along with the American troops down south. And then there is the belief that this is a mission impossible — that even with more troops (which few Europeans have or are willing to deploy) and with more money and goodwill, the chances of stabilizing a country that has suffered a quarter century of conflict and that still ranks about 10th from the bottom in terms of global living standards are vanishingly small. All of which means that it is not all that likely that we’ll see the European governments make the kind of troop and financial commitment that many experts belief will be necessary to give this operation a chance to succeed.
Falls Church, Va.: Could you comment a bit on the internal, behind-the-scenes politics of the NATO summit? How do the leaders of the key nations relate to each other and how important will these relationships be in forming the outcome of the summit?
Ivo H. Daalder: Thank you for this question. The internal politics at this summit will be different than the past, because some of the key leaders gathering in Riga are political has beens. Tony Blair has been disavowed by his own Labour party, and will step down next year. Jacques Chirac is leaving office next May, and France has turned its attention to the race to succeed him. George Bush has just suffered the biggest political shellacking of his career — and his mind is already on the next stop on this trip, his meeting with Iraqi PM Maliki. Only Angela Merkel has a bright political future — but she must surely be wondering with whom she can now work to advance NATO’s agenda.