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War weary Europeans test their leaders' resolve

In several countries contributing troops to the Afghanistan war effort, holding onto public support is half the battle.

A soldier of German armed forces Bundeswehr observes the area as villagers look on in northern Afghanistan's Kunduz district, April 28, 2009. They are witnessing Bundeswehr soldiers recover an armored personnel carrier, "Fuchs," during a mission. Germans, along with Britons and Italians, have mixed feelings about keeping soldiers in the war. (Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters)

PARIS, France — Whoever ends up presiding over Afghan chaos and corruption, Europe is losing patience fast with U.S. mission muddle and a president who won’t make up his mind.

NATO defense ministers meeting last week in Slovakia backed Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s strategy to strike harder, and fast, against a growing insurgency.

But opinion polls and remarks in official circles from Britain to Poland (and elsewhere, like, Canada) make clear that Europeans are fed up with Afghanistan if not the whole military business altogether.

A NATO graph that tracks European defense spending looks like an intermediate ski slope. In every country but Greece, 2010 budget projections suggest a sharper drop.

Jean-Pierre Maulny of France’s Institute for International and Strategic Studies (ISIS) was blunt in the daily Le Monde, which last week examined the trend.

“Budgets are not up to what is at stake, and Europe is sinking into a formless neutrality,” he said. “We are seeing — this is new — a real trans-Atlantic decoupling.”

Europeans spend $520 a year per capita on defense, a third less than Americans. Britain’s budget, the biggest along with France’s, could drop 10 percent in five years.

Where Afghanistan is concerned, these cutbacks coincide with a quickly dissipating political will.

Britain, with 9,000 troops and the largest EU contingent, pledged 500 more but only if allies and Afghans fight the Taliban harder.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain speaks of Afghanization the way Americans once talked of Vietnamization when looking desperately for lights at the end of tunnels.

Brown told Parliament he was looking for “benchmarks and timelines” to hand over security operations to Afghans. Since 2001, British deaths total 221 — 37 since July.

A Daily Telegraph/YouGov poll in August found 62 percent of respondents wanted troops to come home. In a separate poll, only 27 percent favored a long deployment.

In recent German elections, Chancellor Angela Merkel defeated her Social Democrat opponent, who wants out of the war. She is committed to training Afghan police.

But the influential weekly, Der Spiegel, estimated that 70 percent of Germans, like the defeated candidate, want out of a costly, painful and embarrassing quagmire.

After unleashing world-class blitzkrieg twice in living memory, Germans have mixed feelings about keeping 4,500 soldiers at war. Since 2002, 35 have been killed.

Allies who want more combat support are critical of Germany’s preference for rear-echelon missions. So long after World War II, some say, this is a copout.

In September, a German commander called in an air strike near Kunduz based on sketchy single-source information, which killed innocent Afghans.

Last year, a senior German officer called the program to train Afghan police “a miserable failure,” Tom Coghlan reported in the Times of London.

Later, an official report in Berlin said German troops sit around too much drinking beer and eating sausages.