So why is the U.S. still defending prosperous Europe and subsidizing its shrinking militaries?
NATO contributions to Afghanistan will end up being less than they appear. European military outlays will continue falling. Why is the U.S. defending this populous and prosperous continent?
Afghanistan has become increasingly important to NATO. Special envoy Richard Holbrooke says Afghanistan is “the ultimate test” for the alliance.
Secretary Hillary Clinton would have us believe NATO has passed the test. She announced in December that she had won NATO commitments for another 7,000 troops for Afghanistan. She said, “I am just extremely heartened by the level of positive response we’ve received,” and explained: “This is a significant commitment by our” alliance partners.
Yet 1,500 of the supposed extra personnel are already on station and simply won’t be withdrawn while 900 (from non-NATO member Georgia) were promised before the Obama administration decided to increase troop levels. Many of the new troops detachments are small (80 from Macedonia, 85 from Albania) and are from nations that refuse to let their soldiers fight; thousands of the new personnel will be deployed to train Afghan forces rather than battle Taliban insurgents.
After the international conference held in London in late January, Paris announced that it would add no more combat troops. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner explained: “We don’t want to send more troops to fight.”
Germany offered only 850 — 500 directly and another 350 as part of a “flexible reserve” for periodic deployment — about a third of what Washington hoped for. Romania promised 600.
Unfortunately, Canada and the Netherlands plan to withdraw their roughly 5,000 troops over the next two years, effectively wiping out most of the European “surge.” The British government is likely to rethink its participation in the Afghan mission after the coming election. The Royal United Services Institute has proposed “a radical scaling back” of Britain’s contribution.
Observes Daniel Korski of the European Council on Foreign Relations, “Every nation fibs a little, and when you aggregate all the small fibs, it’s hard not to come up with a big fib.”
As a result, NATO is rife with recriminations. Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini charged that “some European countries,” such as France, were shirking their responsibilities. A British official complained: “Frankly, France’s current deployment is too small for a country with that big an army.” Toby Archer of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, noted: “Particular ire was aimed at Germany and France and the word ‘cowardice’ crept into the public debate.”
In any case, while the Aussies, British, Canadians, Danes, and Dutch are noteworthy for their combat efforts, most of the allied contributions are limited in geography and restricted by national “caveats,” making them of only modest security value to the mission. Yet nation-building in Afghanistan is diverting European resources from the defense of Europe.
During the Cold War the Europeans routinely enjoyed a cheap if not quite free defense ride. And since 2,000 the European share of NATO military spending has decreased even as the European share of NATO GDP has increased.
The U.S. devotes almost four percent of GDP to (baseline) defense spending. Only four other NATO members, including Greece, which is arming more against fellow NATO member Turkey than any non-NATO adversary, break the two percent level. Most members are below 1.5 percent.
The trade-off between Afghanistan and European defense is evident even in America’s closest ally, Great Britain. Defense Secretary Bob Ainsworth announced new measures to support operations in Afghanistan, explaining that “We cannot exclude major shifts in the way that we use our defense spending to refocus our priorities.” The Economist observed that most of the cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq “will be found by raiding other parts of the overstretched defense budget.”
There is no unity of purpose in Europe. Charged Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum: “There is almost no sense anywhere that the war in Afghanistan is an international operation, or that the stakes and goals are international, or that the soldiers on the ground represent anything other than their own national flags and national armed forces: Most of the war’s European critics want to know why their boys are fighting ‘for the Americans,’ not for NATO.”
The problem runs much deeper, however. Mature “Old Europe” long has preferred to devote its resources to sustaining an expensive welfare state. Even Central and Eastern Europeans, which most fear possible Russian coercion, spend more time clamoring for greater support from the U.S. and Western Europe than in augmenting their own forces. In a recent study for the Strategic Studies Institute Col. Joel Hillison reported: “While Russian military expenditures began to rise after 2001, the average defensive burden of these new members continued their gradual fall.”
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