Every mission where the European Union is involved will at some point be hailed as a "test case" for its nascent foreign and defence capabilities. From Chad to Bosnia and Kosovo, there are plenty of such tests to choose from. But of all the current missions, Afghanistan is the most important. An EU failure there would have very serious consequences for the Afghan state and people; and it would imperil the effort to develop a common EU foreign policy at the very time when the Lisbon treaty is meant to signal the arrival of a new global player.
This makes it all the wore worrying that the Afghan mission is floundering, thanks largely to the neglect of many of the EU's national governments. They have failed to develop a coherent approach, send enough soldiers and money, and have ignored the key lesson of the Balkans: a successful international intervention requires unity of purpose, strategy, and command.
In Afghanistan, EU countries are engaged in piecemeal politics: they refuse to share full responsibility for the task at hand, and to agree on an overarching strategy for the wider region.
If the EU has failed to focus, Washington has failed to adapt. For too long, United States strategy in Afghanistan has relied on an excessive and sometimes indiscriminate application of military force. American policy-makers have found it convenient to define the struggle in Afghanistan as a security operation, ignoring the necessity of developing a counterinsurgency strategy that emphasises "winning hearts and minds" as much as military success.
It is late in the day, but two developments in 2008 may offer a second - perhaps last - chance for the European Union and the wider international community to pass the crucial Afghan test: the prospective appointment of Paddy Ashdown, the British Liberal Democrat politician and head of Bosnia's political reconstruction (in 2002-06), as United Nations envoy; and the Nato summit in Bucharest in April.
A new strategy
articles on Afghanistan:
Hamish Nixon, "Afghanistan's election world" (13 September 2005)
Irfan Husain, " Kabul vs Islamabad: a war of words" (16 March 2006)
Marco Niada, " Afghanistan: the last chance" (12 July 2006)
Gunnar Heinsohn, " Islamism and war: the demographics of rage" (16 July 2007)
Antonio Giustozzi, " The resurgence of the neo-Taliban", 14 December 2007)
Paul Rogers, " The Pakistan-Afghanistan abyss" (4 January 2008)
The problems of Afghanistan - a complex mix of reconstruction and stabilisation - defy any simple solution. But resolving them - as was and is the case in the Balkans - is likely to remain impossible as long as Euro-Atlantic unity remains elusive and the EU fails to unify its own programmes and speak with one voice.
The first step will be to fashion a coordinated strategy, led by the UN and the Afghan government, which all other strategies - including Nato's plans - would have to follow. The Compact of Afghanistan, agreed in London in February 2006, was written before the Taliban insurgency took hold. A new strategy is now needed to get the country back on to its longer-term developmental trajectory (for a fuller elaboration of this argument, see the new European Council on Foreign Relations report, "Afghanistan: Europe's Forgotten War" [January 2008]).
If it is to work, this strategy needs to address the way that current resources are being dissipated among a myriad of unconnected projects. Instead, the Afghan mission needs to redefine its priorities for 2008-09. Once these priorities have been agreed, a concerted effort by the US and European governments should redirect the resulting assistance programmes.
The political road
What should these priorities be? The key to answering this question lies in the truth that a successful counterinsurgency campaign has to be politically led. Thus, reconstruction assistance and military activities should be arranged to support political outreach, not the other way around.
If this is understood, four priorities of the new Afghan strategy follow.
First, the strategy should put political reconciliation as its core. This is a contentious issue in light of President Hamid Karzai's expulsion of two United Nations and European Union diplomats in late December 2007 for supposed "freelance" efforts to negotiate with elements of the Taliban. So whatever is done, the Afghan government must be in the lead. But it is also clear that persuading higher-ranking Taliban to defect is vital to political progress, and that the current ad hoc approach has not succeeded in this regard.
An improved package of financial and other incentives which adds up to a better deal than that offered by the Taliban to prospective supporters is required. The enticements could include payment by instalments to potential militants to encourage an ongoing commitment to the government, backed by awider reconstruction "benefit package" for their leader's local fiefdom.
Second, there must be renewed emphasis on reform of the police and judiciary, and on human security. Every effort must be made to make life for Afghan citizens more secure. The coalition must stop measuring success based on its own casualties, and highlight indicators of how safe Afghans feel. Meanwhile, US and European assistance programme must improve their coordination, and donors must direct their investments to police and judicial reform.
It is worth considering too the appointment of international jurists to the special tribunal (similar to initiatives in Bosnia and in Cambodia). They could work alongside Afghan officials and observe the Afghan criminal code in hearing cases and prosecuting offenders, thus effectively becoming Afghan officials in the process.
Such political outreach and emphasis on security-sector reform must be implemented from a position of strength, backed by an ever-present ability and willingness to apply force. This will require more troops in the south and greater support for the Afghan security forces. A mere ninety-three police and army trainers out of the 434 originally planned for are currently deployed. To make up the shortfall, European leaders should find an additional 2,000- 2,500 extra Nato troops to work alongside the expected deployment of 3,200 US marines (see Paul Rogers, "The war of the long now", 18 January 2008). They should also lift restrictions in the role of their forces so that German, Spanish and Italian troops can move to the now-quieter east of Afghanistan, allowing the US in turn to transfer forces to the south in aid of the British, Dutch and Canadians.
Third, a change in drugs policy is a pressing challenge. The US should abandon proposals to eradicate poppy fields through aerial spraying and accept that targeting poppy farmers will only fuel the growing Afghan resentment against the international coalition.
Fourth, the successful implementation of a better international strategy will require improved international leadership. Paddy Ashdown himself has lambasted the "stream of contradictory instructions" reaching the Karzai government and "the absence of an international partner". The United States and the European Union should agree to upgrade the United Nations envoy to a "super-envoy" role; this would involve the EU and Nato signalling full support for his leadership, with military commanders giving him strategic oversight and in turn acting under his guidance.
Time is now of the essence. The international community in general and Europe in particular faces a stark choice in Afghanistan: to recast policy there by helping to forge a new coordinated approach, or to face a slow unravelling that would end in defeat. The Afghan people and the world needs Europe to choose the first option, and to pass a historic test.