Discussing European Efforts at Afghan Reconstruction

by Joshua Foust on 11/11/2010 · 4 comments

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.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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A November 11, 2010 at 5:23 pm

This was interesting.

I’m from Sweden myself, and I can only second what you wrote about how most ISAF nations struggle to adapt, and about the public reaction. The Swedish parliament just reconfirmed its deployment of 530 troops to the Mazar PRT (the number will probably be raised a little bit), and has security responsibility for Balkh, Jowzjan, Sar-e pul and Samangan. Those provinces are extremely calm compared to most places in Afghanistan, and that’s intentional — government policy is to stay out of harms way, to avoid casualties and criticism that would force an end to the mission altogether. This attitude has also meant forces were kept very low (<350 until 2008), which, given the high marginal cost of establishing a presence in Afghanistan for such a small and unsuited force as the Swedish army, has meant that the actual impact on the ground is ridiculously small. During the first year or so of PRT leadership, we could normally only field a single infantry platoon on the field — thirty soldiers. Most other troops were busy guarding each other, doing logistics, command, communicatinos, and other baseline stuff.

Now things are starting to turn problematic, in Balkh especially (perhaps related to the NATO logistical reshuffle through Cent Asia?), and attacks against the Swedish ISAF force are up dramatically (albeit from a very low starting point). There's only been five deaths in all, but even that very low number has fed a lot of critical debate

On the public's attitude, there's very low support for the war itself. It is basically seen as a US venture, which is not a good thing due to neutrality traditions.. Swedish governments (first Social Democrat, now Center-Right) have backed the deployment, but do not seem to have put much thinking into why. The first reaction in 2001-2002 was to send troops to show commitment to the US, to entrench our own security cooperation with NATO, not out of any particular interest in Afghanistan. It was rammed through parliament with very little real debate. After that, the mission has been extended and expanded, and consequently it has become increasingly controversial.

Most problematically, and I think typically for many European contributor nations, is that the issue has become mixed up with partisan politics, and is being instrumentalized to score cheap points (by both sides). Rational analysis of how, and if, Sweden can do anything useful militarily, stands little chance in that climate, and it's increasingly just about being "for" or "against" the war. The Swedish debate should of course be about whether and if so, how, we can assist the US/Karzai side, but instead it just copies themes from the US debate, as if Stockholm was in some sort of decision-making position. There doesn't seem to be much realization of how extremely marginal the Swedish contribution is. The tone of the debate is "oh no, if we withdraw the Taliban will take over", when in fact, if we withdraw, the US will take over our provinces, and that's that.

The pro-participation side argues intensively for the Swedish mission as part and parcel of humanitarian assistance, saying essentially that if there are no troops then the Taliban will burn schools, cut off girls' noses, etc. Seems to work pretty well with public opinion.

The weak point of that argument is of course that it doesn't explain why the troops should necessarily be *Swedish*, given how tiny our military is, how ill-suited it is for fighting in Afghanistan (we have no helicopters, near-zero combat experience, have just started a panicked training program for Dari speakers, etc), and the unnecessary political strain it puts on government-public relations, when the public is traditionally pacifist-leaning, extremely casualty-intolerant, and quite skeptical of US policy.

I think it would probably have been a net gain for the larger ISAF mission if Sweden had avoided sending troops, or just sent an entirely symbolic force, and instead put in an equal amount of aid money. (Swedish aid projects, channelled through the Swedish Afghanistan Committee, which has been in-country since 1980, seems quite cost-effective, in contrast to the military side of things.) — And yes, I also imagine this goes for quite a few other minor contributing nations.

anan November 11, 2010 at 6:29 pm

A would love to touch base offline if possible.

To my mind Sweden’s largest contribution has been in mentoring 209th ANA Corps troops, 1st Brigade, 209th Corps, and the Mazar AUP.

Do you have any thoughts on how the Swedes have done in mentoring ANSF?

For the last 3 years, 209th ANA Corps has had arguably the second best HQs of all ANA Corps after 203rd. Similarly, 1-209 Bde has been arguably one of the best in the ANA. To my knowledge they have never lost an engagement with the Taliban. [On the other hand, they do not deploy in bluk or platoon strength often enough.] I say arguably one of the best since the Taliban is too scared to engage them in the north. They haven’t been tested against a capable enemy in a company sized battle to my knowledge.

I would give the Swedes and Germans a lot of credit for this. 209th ANA Corps and the Mazar AUP are likely to be Sweden’s long term legacies in Afghanistan.

What have the Swedes done right that other countries have messed up [including some US army mentors in this as well]?

A, do not under estimate the power of the example of 209th ANA corps or 1-209 or the extent of pride Afghans have in them. Sweden’s contribution has been larger than you realize.

By contrast, 2-209 has been troubled. Hungary bravely agreed to take lead responsibility for mentoring this brigade, heading a multinational OMLT for this purpose. They messed up badly. Their OMLTs have been renamed “multinational” with Americans and others playing a large role in them. [more on this below]

This brings up an important aspect of the ISAF mission. There are many mission critical responsibility sets. Take the analogy of a Boeing 747. It has let us say a 1000 parts. Of these maybe 200 are mission critical. Meaning if they fail, the plane probably goes down. In Afghanistan, many of the mission critical responsibilities are conducted by countries other than the US.

For example France/Greece run the ANA armor school and mentor the only mech brigade in the entire ANA 3-111. If either the ANA armor school or 3-111 fails, that risks mission failure and a real disaster in Kabul and Kapisa. 3-111 was declared by many Marines to be the best brigade in the entire ANA, and it certainly was one of the best in the ANA [although I would rank 1-203 ahead of it.] This critical brigade was handed to France and Greece, which means the success of the entire mission rests to some degree in their hands.

Hungary failed in one of the more important missions in Afghanistan, 2-209, as well as in training the Baghlan AUP. This mistake has caused a large share of if not the majority of the problems in the north. It isn’t mission critical . . . but it is a big deal.

More important than 2-209 was 209th ANA Corps troops and 1-209. That was mission critical. And the Swedes and Germans seem to have executed. This is the reason the North hasn’t fallen.

I don’t think we recognize the degree to which so many countries have mission critical responsibilities in Afghan. Even the small European countries matter.

All of us in ISAF need to think a lot more about how we are mentoring Afghan institutions. This is the main way we are affecting Afghanistan, our main contribution to Afghanistan, and will be our legacy after we leave. Much as the legacy of Britain in Pakistani and India is their judicial systems, civil services, national armies, railway services, and police. That is the metric through which Pakistanis and Indians judge the British Raj to this day.

You're so wrong... November 13, 2010 at 8:14 am

“To my mind Sweden’s largest contribution has been in mentoring 209th ANA Corps troops, 1st Brigade, 209th Corps, and the Mazar AUP.”

You’re so wrong! They’re largest contribution is in the sunbathing that the Swedish girls do. Nothing like walking around Puce Esan or Camp Northern Lights on a warm/hot sunny morning!

I'm so wrong... November 14, 2010 at 6:41 am

I’ve been informed that dumb American soldiers have spoiled the fun of watching the European sunbathing contests in the north by taking pictures of the girls. I am now a broken man…

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