Analysis: Allied leaders twiddle thumbs, waiting on Obama

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.

While the attendees did not necessarily agree on whether expeditionary missions like the war in Afghanistan should be a part of NATO’s strategic concept, there was little disagreement that the mission must succeed. However, it is clear that over the past eight years of conflict the definition of success has met with lower and lower expectations.

U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), for one, said the goal should not be “to make Afghanistan a working democracy. … The goal is to see stability in Afghanistan and the ability of the Afghans to take over their own government and their own security.”

For U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), success means a “flawed but functioning democracy,” “a military and police that are effective, not always perfect” and “probably continued violence for years to come … but a government that continues to improve.”

Karl-Theodor Freiherr zu Guttenberg, German defense minister in the new center-right coalition, agreed.

“I think we have to be absolutely open and frank about deficits in our strategies we have met so far in Afghanistan, for Afghanistan,” zu Guttenberg said. “We have to probably reformulate from time to time whether it was right to dream the dream of a western-style democracy in Afghanistan and probably forget at the same time certain cultural elements we probably won’t change in the future.”

Later in the Halifax discussions, Pauline Neville-Jones, who is Shadow Security Minister in the U.K., said that given its commitment to Afghanistan, the alliance has to be seen as succeeding, however that is defined. She emphasized Britain’s commitment to the original purpose of the Afghanistan mission and its steadfastness in that should the Conservative Party trump the ruling Labour Party as expected next year:

“For the U.K, there is no situation that is more important to our security than Afghanistan and Pakistan. Something like 75 percent of the all the terrorist-related activity in the United Kingdom has that link. For us it is supremely important,” Neville-Jones said. “We will put in the resources both in terms of man and kit that are needed.”

But what the U.S. will ask for in terms of resources and time remains to be seen. Asked whether Obama’s long strategic review represented careful deliberation or dithering, McCain replied, “probably somewhere in between.” His impression, from recent discussions with foreign leaders, is that the delay was beginning to cause damage.

“There is beginning to be a very significant concern about sounding an uncertain trumpet and these really incredible leaks that go on about the inner debates and divisions within the administration are not helpful either,” McCain said. “I hope that very soon … all this will be behind us.”

While the delay has not done the U.S. or the allies any favors with regard to public opinion, the non-committal statements in Halifax bode well for consensus once the plan is announced. McCain was hopeful that Obama, his former rival for the presidency, could make it all right with an eloquent speech: “He will win a significant amount of time and patience on the part of the American people because I think he has very great communications with the American people.”

But will the president’s magnetism translate abroad?

“This administration is only nine months in and to have a full review, a reset of relations with Russia, a detailed diplomacy, and a full-scale review and a strategic analysis of Afghanistan is an accomplishment,” said Bruce Jackson, president of the Project on Transitional Democracies. “And so I think that the Europeans will be pleasantly surprised and reassured at the clarity of American policy, which will be evident. But it will have to wait. I think it will be good.”