Monday, 31 August 2009

The Poodle And The Butcher

Following on from our recent post about relations between Britain and the US (see post), it seems that matters are about to come to a head. It is speculated that a Pentagon report will shortly circulated that suggests that the current US military strategy is ‘not working’ (see report). It is also speculated that the answer, according to the US military, is to send a further 20,000 NATO troops to Afghanistan (see report). This, of course, raises the vexed question of exactly who is to send these additional troops.

America is the first port of call. As the US presence in Iraq is wound down, the Pentagon may have the capacity to increase its presence in Afghanistan. The problem is that the US public is falling out of love with the Afghan adventure. A recent survey in The Economist (see survey) reports that 42% of Americans believe that the US is not winning the war in Afghanistan (as opposed to just 18% who believe that the US is winning the war), 41% oppose increasing the number of troops in Afghanistan (as opposed to 32% who are in favour of doing so), and 65% believe that the US will eventually withdraw from Afghanistan without winning the war (as opposed to 35% who believe that the US will win the war).

This creates a dilemma for President Obama. He is locked into the policy of increasing the number of troops in country because, at present, he cannot contemplate an American withdrawal from Afghanistan. Sadly, he is backing a set of Afghan allies – irrespective of who wins the recent election - who are not currently up to the job of providing their own security. This implies that America will be the first port of call for reinforcements for some time to come. Unless he can engage the rest of the world community in accepting the mission, which is where NATO comes into the picture.

Contrary to popular belief, the current mission in Afghanistan is not an American mission, it is a NATO mission. The US currently supplies 46% of the troops in country (see data). The second largest national contributor is the UK, with 14% of the troops. The total contribution from the EU nations (including the UK) is 43%, marginally less than that of the US. This suggests that the second port of call for reinforcements is Europe. Of the five largest European contributors, Germany (6% of the force total), France (5% of the force total), Italy (4% of the force total), and Poland (3% of the force total) are all likely to cite their own problems in deploying more troops.

Of the top five European contributors, only the UK has the capacity and willingness to increase their deployment. The recent increase in the numbers of British troops in Afghanistan highlighted the tensions over further deployments. The Foreign Office wanted to commit a further 2,000 troops. The Treasury stated that we could only afford 750. The military felt that 750 troops adequately resourced would be better than 2,000 troops inadequately resourced and sided with the Treasury. Against this conversation, the public didn’t really have too much of a view.

And this is the point where the issues of the NHS and the Lockerbie Bomber assume importance. The war in Afghanistan is starting to become unpopular in the UK. For example, in Helmand Province, 10 British soldiers died to allow a population of 80,000 Afghans have the opportunity to vote in the recent election. That only 150 Afghans actually voted is seen in the UK as not good enough (see report). This is not a good time for Gordon Brown to commit more troops to that operation – particularly in the face of an oncoming General Election – to what is seen as an American folly because the US is politically unpopular in the UK at the moment.

If President Obama has any political savvy, he will not ask for more troops from the UK for fear of being rejected. However, that may create problems for him at home. Perhaps our previous Obamascepticism was well placed?

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