Afghanistan was top of the agenda as EU defense ministers gathered in the Belgian city of Ghent for an informal meeting on Friday. The US wants more European troops in Afghanistan, but this could prove a tall order.
Germany is gradually boosting its military presence
German Defense Minister Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg, speaking on the sidelines of an informal meeting with his European counterparts in the northern Belgian city of Ghent, said that Germany intends to increase its efforts training the Afghan security forces. Guttenberg said that as many as 1,600 soldiers could be conducting this role by the end of October.
However, the defense minister was also keen to stress that this would not involve committing any more troops to the publicly unpopular Afghan mission than the government in Berlin had previously promised.
"Our mandate is very clearly formulated, and we will stick to it while it is valid," Guttenberg said. "We haven't even reached the (upper limit for troop levels of) 5,000 yet - we'll hit that level around at the end of October, when we have finished deploying the second training and protection battalion."
Germany's current mandate for the Afghan mission, which is reviewed and renewed each year, allows for an upper limit of 5,000 soldiers and a reserve of 350; it expires in February 2011.
The plan is to train Afghan forces and let them take over
Increasing efforts towards training the Afghan security forces is part of the overall ISAF strategy of mission commander David Petraeus. The ultimate goal is to train and equip a self-sufficient local military and police force, allowing Western forces to start withdrawing from the country. Earlier in the week, the US General asked for an extra 2,000 soldiers from Washington's NATO partners to this end.
Europe reluctant to boost levels
NATO sources report that European allies feel they cannot meet Petraeus' requests. Politically, several countries are unwilling to commit more troops to a mission that's unpopular among the electorate, and financially, most NATO partners feel they don't have the necessary resources.
"It's not just Germany that's discussing ways to facilitate more professional and faster cooperation with NATO partners on the ground," Defense Minister Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg said, suggesting it might be possible improve efficiency instead of boosting troop levels.
"All our European partners are discussing ways to achieve this, and some are already implementing them, therefore, I see great potential in this direction."
Guttenberg says Germany will stick to its current mandate
Some European projects along these lines include improving military helicopters in the region, and the shared usage of cargo planes to save resources. The cost of the military mission is beginning to hurt European countries, many of whom are battling to reduce their public expenditure and national debts.
"Europe has more military personnel than the US, we have two million troops in Europe, compared to America's 1.4 million," German Free Democrat Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, a member of the European parliament, said. "Yet we spend 200 billion dollars on our armed forces, while the US spends 500 billion. That means we are still light years behind the US in terms of equipment, training, and protecting our forces in the field."
Lambsdorff also mentioned the dangers of sending troops to the region without the necessary financial backing, saying this could lead to problems for the soldiers like missing or inferior equipment. He said European NATO members had no choice but to act within their limitations.
The EU defense minister meeting in Ghent was not expected to yield any fixed resolutions, the informal talks serve as an exchange of experience and ideas.
Author: Christoph Prössl, Ghent (msh)
Editor: Andreas Illmer