Bloomberg News

Published: June 17, 2008

Today in Europe

PARIS: As a fresh battalion of 700 French soldiers sets off this summer for the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, President Nicolas Sarkozy is seeking a more coherent course for a six-and-a-half year conflict that has no end in sight.

In Europe, where committing troops to the war has been an increasingly hard sell, continued involvement hinges on a comprehensive plan for the country’s reconstruction, which was the focus of an international conference in Paris last week.

European leaders “want a new strategy that’s more saleable at home,” says Daniel Korski, author of “Afghanistan: Europe’s Forgotten War” and a senior fellow at the London-based European Council on Foreign Relations. “It is part of an outreach to the domestic audience that there’s more to this than the military component.”

When the war was started in late 2001 in response to the attacks of Sept. 11 against New York and Washington, the fight against Al Qaeda and its Taliban allies had broad support in both the United States and Europe, in stark contrast to the more divisive, costlier and deadlier Iraq war that began two years later.

Since then, Afghanistan has increasingly been caught in a spiral of violence and corruption, fueled by a booming opium trade that has put local officials in thrall to a criminal narcotics racket.

Heroin production in Afghanistan has tripled since 2001 and now accounts for 90 percent of the world supply, according to U.S. figures. Profit from the drug trade helps fund Taliban insurgents, who have stepped up attacks. In 2003, there were three suicide bombings. In 2007, there were 130.

As allied casualties have mounted – more than 840 at last count – popular support for the war has waned in Europe, limiting the ability of government leaders to respond to urgent pleas for help from the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which leads the international force in Afghanistan.

Money for humanitarian and reconstruction projects is easier to collect. More than $20 billion in aid was pledged at the Paris conference last week, as 85 countries and international organizations rallied to help. The United States was by far the largest donor, with a promise of $10.2 billion over two years on top of $23 billion spent since 2001. France pledged to deliver $165 million by 2009.

Sarkozy has won praise from President George W. Bush for increasing France’s troop commitment in Afghanistan. Last week, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy followed suit, telling Bush that he was willing to let Italian troops assume a broader military role. Prime Minister Gordon Brown committed more British troops Monday.

They and other leaders have been less successful in convincing their populations of the importance of fighting in Afghanistan.

Sixty-eight percent of French people oppose Sarkozy’s decision to send more troops, according to a survey conducted by the Paris-based pollster BVA, which questioned 970 people between March 28 and 29.

In April, the country’s Socialist opposition introduced a no-confidence motion in Parliament because of Sarkozy’s plan to increase the French presence to 2,300 soldiers; the measure failed. German leaders, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, have had to face down political opposition each time they renewed their deployment of some 3,500 troops.

Hosting the Paris conference, which focused more on social and developmental issues, was one way for Sarkozy to offset criticism of the new deployment.

Aid donors have criticized the reconstruction effort in Afghanistan, which they say is plagued by corruption and a “bouillabaisse” of overlapping assistance programs. The conference last week promised a new start, with the local United Nations mission given a broader mandate to coordinate projects and the Afghan government more authority to execute them.

There are now about 70,000 international troops in Afghanistan; 32,000 are Americans, according to Pentagon and NATO figures. The U.S. commitment is due to increase again next year, perhaps by as many as 7,000, filling a shortfall left by reluctant NATO allies: just two years ago, the U.S. force was 20,000.

French officials stress that the Afghanistan conflict cannot be solved by force alone.

“There will be no military solution,” says Eric Chevallier, the French Foreign Ministry’s special adviser and the conference’s chief organizer. “There must be a military dimension, but it will be a political solution, achieved through a comprehensive approach.”

Europeans look to the next U.S. president – the Democrat Barack Obama or the Republican John McCain – to pay more attention to Afghanistan as the war in Iraq eventually winds down.

“It is clear that both McCain and Obama would invest more in Afghanistan,” Korski says. “They see Afghanistan as the ‘good war.”‘