Continental Drift

Europe will abandon Afghanistan unless Obama recasts the war as a struggle to prevent the collapse of Pakistan.

The whole community paused for two minutes silence at 11 AM. The second Sunday in November is Remembrance Day in Britain and in most Commonwealth countries. This year's was especially poignant in view of recent British casualties in Afghanistan, including the November 4 murder of five soldiers by an Afghan assigned to their unit for training. The Queen, many in the Royal Family, all the senior political leadership and the leading diplomats from the Commonwealth laid wreathes at the Cenotaph in White Hall.

If Afghanistan is a huge challenge for Obama, it is even more a burden for the beleaguered British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Opinion polls in Britain have over the years been more supportive of the war in Afghanistan than Iraq, but with Britain now out of the latter and its casualties rising in the former, the majority now believes it is time to bring the troops home within a year. It is increasingly difficult to justify their presence in view of the corruption in Afghanistan and the flaws in Afghani leadership under Hamid Karzai. Few believe that the situation can be turned around. The idea, now associated with Vice President Joe Biden, that the confrontation should be turned into a mission primarily against terrorist groups goes against one of the main themes that up to now has given support for the Afghanistan war some resonance in Britain and other European countries-namely, that it is a fight for democratic universal values, such as women's rights. Brown's best hope at this time is that the Conservative Party opposition in Parliament is not inclined, at this point, to call for withdrawal.

If some form of compromise emerges in Obama's new plans for Afghanistan that lowers the bar on reform and universal values, then many Europeans will ask what's the point of being there? The terrorism threat from Afghanistan has become increasingly mute. Most recent terrorist incidents in both the United States and Europe have been traced to extremists who did their training and operated out of America and the Continent. Thus the argument that one has to stay in Afghanistan to stop terrorist attacks at home is disingenuous.

The strongest strategic argument to stay in Afghanistan remains the stability of Pakistan. If the Taliban were to return to power in Kabul, this would strengthen the Taliban in Pakistan and make Islamabad's role in containing its own internal terrorists much more difficult. Any development that destabilizes Pakistan affects the entire subcontinent and beyond. Imagine Pakistan as a failed state with 170 million people (a population larger than that of Russia), nuclear weapons and a coastline adjacent to some of the world's most important sea lanes. If there is to be any rational for the continued Afghan war, it must be pitched in these terms. This is understood in 10 Downing Street, but absent a more forceful public affairs campaign, both in Europe and the United States, it will become an increasingly difficult sell.


Geoffrey Kemp is the Director of Regional Strategic Programs at The Nixon Center.