Germany and France remain non-commital on Afghanistan

BRUSSELS, Belgium — For months, European allies have said they wanted to hear U.S. President Barack Obama’s plans for Afghanistan before they made any new commitments of troops to the eight-year-old war, now led by NATO. "I think most countries are waiting for the American decisions," Dutch Defense Minister Eimert Van Middelkoop said in October at a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Bratislava.

The Europeans were worried about both possible scenarios: If Obama decided to send a significant number of troops as per the request of U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, they knew they would be expected to follow suit. If Obama did not pledge a significant troop increase, the situation would become even worse for the 38,000 non-U.S. troops on the battlefield and the war would, by most assessments, be lost.

But while the U.S. president was taking heat for “dithering” in his decision-making, not everyone in European capitals was using the time to prepare for the two scenarios. Now Obama has announced his plan and, voila, some are still putting off announcing their own plans until after a new deadline: a United Nations-sponsored international conference on Afghanistan scheduled for Jan. 28 in London.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, however, preceded Obama’s appeal with an offer of 500 more soldiers; with 9,000 already on the ground, the United Kingdom has the second-largest force in Afghanistan after the U.S. On Wednesday, Poland said it would add 600 troops and Italy promised an unspecified increase.

But the third and fourth largest contributors, Germany and France, both said they’re not prepared to boost their commitments before the London conference, which will focus on ways to strengthen Afghanistan’s government and help it to eventually take over its own security.

Reports citing anonymous NATO diplomats circulated in Brussels on Tuesday that said Obama was asking for 10,000 more soldiers from NATO countries and partners such as Georgia and Ukraine, and that he had even asked Paris directly for 1,500 more troops.

But in a Wednesday morning press conference at NATO headquarters, when Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he could “confirm that the allies, and our partners, will do more, substantially more,” his tally was 5,000 soldiers. Rasmussen said, though with less conviction, that he also expected “probably a few thousand on top of that.”

Rasmussen seems to have taken over the Pentagon’s role of cajoling/harassing/imploring NATO governments for more resources. (Not coincidentally, one of the reasons Washington had strongly backed Rasmussen to take over as NATO chief when the post was vacated by Jaap de Hoop Scheffer in the summer was his firm support as Danish Prime Minister for the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.)

Echoing a theme in Obama’s speech, Rasmussen said the boost is in allies’ own interests. “What is happening in Afghanistan poses a clear and present danger to the citizens in all our countries,” he said, “terrorism that could strike our streets, our airports, our metros. Extremism that inspires violence across the world. Drugs that end up in our schools and back alleys, and that kill 100,000 people every year. Instability in Afghanistan means insecurity for all of us.”

Beyond that, he argued that Obama deserves the allies' support. “The U.S. has pursued a multilateral approach to this operation. We must now demonstrate that multilateralism delivers concrete results.”

But complicating Rasmussen’s drive is the fact that two important sources of troops — Canada and the Netherlands — have announced they will end their Afghan missions. Canadian Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon on Wednesday reconfirmed plans to have Canadian soldiers home by the end of 2011. The Dutch government has said it will pull its troops out next year, though that remains a subject of internal debate.

Asked about the unilateral withdrawals, Rasmussen said he hoped those governments would review their plans in light of the American buildup. “I hope all allies will take into consideration how important it is that we keep this as an alliance mission,” he said. “This is our fight, together. We must finish it together.”

And Washington has already deployed some backup for Rasmussen in these arguments. Within 12 hours of the Obama speech, Richard Holbrooke, U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, was holding meetings at European Union headquarters. Holbrooke said he was “immensely gratified that every participant on the meeting expressed strong support for what the president said last night.”

And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, testifying about the Afghanistan plan on Capitol Hill Wednesday, will arrive in Brussels early Friday morning to speak to her fellow foreign ministers about U.S. expectations and what they can do to help fulfill them.