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U.K.'s Afghan rethink

By MARTIN WALKER, UPI Editor Emeritus   |   Sept. 8, 2009 at 9:47 AM   |   Comments

LONDON, Sept. 8 (UPI) -- When a government does not know what to do on an issue of domestic policy, it sets up a committee and stages a policy review. When it is equally baffled by a matter of foreign policy, it calls for an international conference.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown's limping government in Britain has now tried both of these approaches to the unpopular war in Afghanistan in the course of a single week. Five days ago, after an internal review, Brown announced that the mission was "realistic and achievable."

Over the weekend, after talks in Berlin with Chancellor Angela Merkel, Brown called for an international political conference with the new post-election Afghan government to coordinate allies and resources in support of the U.S.-led mission.

Merkel and Brown, backed up by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, have written to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and asked him to organize the conference. It is supposed to agree and refine a common strategy for the Afghan mission next year and "to ensure our strategy is properly supported by the resources needed to deliver it."

There are now 42 countries involved in the U.S.-led mission and almost 90,000 troops there or scheduled to deploy, two-thirds from the United States and another 9,000 from Britain. And yet the broad feeling is in NATO circles that the allies are certainly not winning the war against the Taliban and may be losing it by losing the support of the Afghan people. (The German officer who authorized an airstrike on two hijacked fuel tankers over the weekend, allegedly killing or wounding up to 90 civilians, may have a lot to answer for.)

The widespread complaints of fraud in the recent Afghan election have raised the question whether the corrupt and ineffective government of President Hamid Karzai is worth defending. British opinion polls are pretty clear that the voters think Karzai hardly deserved the effort, which has so far cost the lives of 212 British troops. The United States has lost 813 dead, Canada 124, Germany 33, France 28, Spain 25 and Denmark 24.

There are also signs of a growing back-bench revolt against the war by Labor members of Parliament, who already fear defeat at the general election that must be held before June. An unpopular and possibly losing war is not the best way to claw back voter support.

Brown has made two clear arguments in favor of the war, beyond the issues of supporting the U.S. ally and a fledgling democracy and building a stable state in Afghanistan. The first is that "Preventing terrorism coming to the streets of Britain, America and other countries depends on strengthening the authorities in both Pakistan and Afghanistan to defeat al-Qaida and the Taliban," as Brown explained in a speech last week.

"For if in either country the Taliban are allowed to undermine legitimate government, that would open the way once again for al-Qaida to have greater freedom from which to launch terrorist attacks across the world," he added.

Brown's second reason for the war, at least for British ears, is to try to restrain the Afghan opium trade that is the source of most of the heroin on British streets. This does not go far to persuade those who recall that British addicts never seemed to go short of heroin before, during or after the days of the Taliban rule.

Eric Joyce, a junior defense minister and former army officer, resigned from the government last week claiming that the war could no longer be justified on the prime minister's terms and that the British were bearing far too great a share of the burden.

Repeated attempts by the U.S. and British governments to get their NATO allies to play a larger role have had little success. The French have sent an extra battalion and the Germans are to send a small, company-sized unit that is supposed to fight, rather than simply patrol. But that is all, and the Canadians start to withdraw within the next 18 months.

"Unless our partners start to pull their weight in terms of combat units then NATO is doomed," commented Patrick Mercer, a Conservative MP and former infantry officer. "You cannot have a handful of nations doing the fighting and dying and everybody else doing the computers and the mobile bath units, without confidence in the whole alliance being eroded."

The war is far too unpopular for any European government to commit much political capital to it, which means that a key component of U.S. President Barack Obama's international strategy has crumbled. The Europeans are not prepared to do much more for him, who they like a lot, than they were for President Bush, who they disliked.

In short, policy is more important in international relations than the personality of the president. The European reluctance to do more also means that Obama has failed to sell them his argument that if Iraq was the bad war, Afghanistan was the good one. With U.S. opinion polls saying 75 percent of Americans oppose the president's plan to send more combat troops, the Europeans can hardly be expected to be more supportive than Obama's own voters.

But that raises the double prospect of a defeat for the West and the withering of NATO, which would be so much the worst of all worlds that Brown and his likely Conservative successor David Cameron would spend a lot of political capital to prevent it.

So expect a discreet scaling back of war aims, along the lines being suggested by former Defense Secretary Michael Portillo, who argues that the West should scrap the talk of Afghan democracy, nation building and schools for girls. The goal is simply to keep al-Qaida from getting a safe haven. And if that means an authoritarian government with a lot of Taliban presence, so be it.

© 2009 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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