This past weekend, I had the pleasure of attending a conference at Metropolitan University Prague about European efforts in Afghanistan’s reconstruction. My contribution, naturally, was about the interplay between French and American objectives in Kapisa province. But what I found incredibly interesting was the perspective of other European countries on the war.
Most Americans do not realize there are 50,000 European, Australian, and New Zealand troops in Afghanistan right now. Most are involved with various PRTs around the country, with obvious exceptions like the Canadians in Kandahar, the Brits in Helmand, the Australians in Uruzgan, and the French in Kapisa (more on that in a forthcoming book, actually). Hearing the perspectives of these other contributing member countries drove home, to me at least, how complex the idea of policy in Afghanistan really is.
Take Hungary, for example. They are, by and large, responsible for Baghlan province—one of the areas that is increasingly becoming “colonized” by the insurgency as part of their campaign to disrupt the north. As Péter Marton and Péter Wagner, two friends who’ve been working on Afghanistan issues as long as I have, explained, Hungary is a huge contributor to ISAF, in terms of a per capita commitment. But what does that mean?
The Péters described the Hungarian military as “proudly going through the motions” of a military campaign. They are proud of their contribution, and believe strongly in being a committed and equal partner in NATO, but struggle with the basics of deployment, from personnel shortages to basic strategic and operational concepts. The way Marton described it, the Hungarian military was trained in the 1990s to do peacekeeping, yet in Afghanistan they face outright combat and counterinsurgency—so they struggle.
Hungary, like many of the smaller European countries contributing to the mission in Afghanistan, has failed consistently to both to accomplish meaningful development projects, and to convince its citizens that the mission is necessary. Almost every single country whose contributions were highlighted featured an apathetic public: most people were mildly opposed to the war, but not strongly enough to force their governments to withdraw (Germany was a notable exception).
I don’t want to rail on Hungary. Egdūnas Račius, of Vilnius University in Lithuania, noted that literally the only reason they deployed to Ghor province was out of obligation to NATO. But even more remarkably, they’d done no research into the Ghor region before going—he recounted an episode where his government thanked him for literally quoting a Wikipedia entry on the province for providing insight they didn’t have before. There, too, Lithuanians don’t seem to care much one way or another about their mission to the country—even as Ghor develops the first stages of instability and frightens the Lithuanian soldiers to remaining confined to their small base in Chaghcharan.
One of the more interesting discussions was by Petros Vamvakas, who discussed the Turkish contributions to the country. Leaving aside their activities in Wardak, which are praised by themselves and kind of ignored by everyone else (including the Taliban), Petros placed Turkey’s mission not in the context of its obligations to NATO, but in the context of Turkey’s grand strategy—which after the AKP victory in 2009 is to improve their global image, perception, and place in the world.
For the life of me, it reminded me of Turkey’s attempts in the early and mid-90s to emplace itself as the vanguard of “Pan-Turkic” identity in Central Asia (I remember a very surreal conversation in 2003 with a Turkish taxi driver in Almaty about this). That attempt largely failed, and many inside Turkey concluded they simply were not ready to be a global cultural force. That seems to have changed, and Petros’ talk included terrific detail about how Turkey’s mission in Afghanistan is now being changed to service this new regional and global strategy.
There’s a lot more to discuss, but really, this conference was a preview of sorts for what comes next: an edited book containing all of these perspectives. I’ll be contributing a chapter discussing the French and American experiences in Kapisa—something about which you can find some scattered anecdotes in my Registan.net book, which was released this week to gratifyingly warm praise (there is a chapter in there devoted to Kapisa). This new book on Afghanistan’s Reconstruction will contain additional chapters on Australia (by William Maley, who’s talk at the conference was fast-paced, witty, really detailed, and terrifically entertaining), Germany, the Czech Republic (who runs a PRT in Logar, which carries some interesting implications), Norway, and a lot more.
I’m really excited about this—as I said above, Americans are not accustomed to thinking about the specific contributions of European partners in the Coalition, except in a generic and derogatory sense. Every country in Europe has experienced difficult challenges in adjusting to the operational realities of the war in Afghanistan. What I find so remarkable, however, is how parallel those challenges are—not only similar to each other, but similar to the U.S.’s, Canada’s, the UKs, and the Dutch. It is remarkable to me that we all face the same set of problems, yet it is only now, in 2010, that people are getting together to discuss them in a comparative way and possibly start deriving some lessons.
The book, edited by Péter Marton and Nikolas Hynek of Metropolitan Univerity Prague (who organized the conference), will be published by Routledge and released in 2011.