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Analysis: Allied leaders twiddle thumbs, waiting on Obama

Conservative leaders in the US and abroad hope Obama’s eloquence on a new Afghanistan strategy will win hearts and minds.

Canadian Defense Minister Peter MacKay, left, and U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates answer questions at Citadel Hill in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Nov. 20, 2009. (Jeff Harper/Reuters)

HALIFAX, Canada — At the just-concluded Halifax International Security Forum, top European and North American military and defense leaders gave little indication what they think will happen in Afghanistan. Indeed, they are waiting on U.S. President Barack Obama to announce the new U.S. strategy so that they can line up behind it.

Surge or no surge, 10,000 troops or 35,000, the rhetoric surrounding Obama’s decision assumes that what he decides will set the course not just for the U.S., but for its NATO allies. “I know that Afghanistan is on everyone's mind, with the president soon to announce his decisions on the way ahead for the United States and our partners,” said U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates in opening remarks at the forum.

Without that leadership from Obama, the alliance seems mired in uncertainty. During the panel titled “Afghanistan: Transition to what?” moderator Lyse Doucet of the BBC asked whether in a year the situation in Afghanistan would improve or deteriorate. The audience of about 200 split by thirds among those two options and “don’t know.” It was symbolic of the challenge politicians face in selling the mission to the public.

As popular support for military involvement in Afghanistan plummets among the populations of U.S. allies, those countries’ leaders are hoping Obama’s vaunted public speaking will make the new strategy politically viable once the president announces it in the coming days or weeks.

“In Canada, all we really hear about on the mission in Afghanistan is sadly those Canadian soldiers who are killed and whose bodies we bring back to Canada, secondly improvised explosive devices and thirdly corruption in government,” said Gen. (ret.) Rick Hillier, Canada’s former chief of defense staff. “There is much more to the issue than that and perhaps a guy like President Obama with his ability to speak and communicate could help communicate that.”

In fact, the question marks on Afghanistan stymied the analysis of other issues during the three days of talks in Nova Scotia, hosted by the Canadian government and coordinated by the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

“It would have been a good thing if we had known today what the American administration is going to do, what the new strategy is going to be,” said Najam Sethi, editor of Pakistan’s Daily Times. “There are a lot of ifs and buts.”

The lack of clarity on Afghanistan even put discussion of NATO’s ongoing strategic concept review, which was last conducted in 1999, in question.

“Having these discussions in the midst of a very bloody conflict in Afghanistan puts us a bit off track,” said Canadian Defense Minister Peter MacKay.