Obama faces resistance in Europe over Afghanistan policy

Oliver Scanlan
3 April 2009

Barack Obama faced his first foreign policy setback today since being sworn in as US president as European allies seem likely to resist pressure to increase troop deployments in Afghanistan. At a press conference with French President Nicholas Sarkozy just prior to the opening of the NATO summit in Strasbourg to mark the 60th anniversary of the military alliance, Obama told reporters that al-Qaeda was more likely to hit Europe than the US.

He went on to emphasise that the ongoing war in Afghanistan was an international mission, not merely an American one. At this stage, most commentators doubt that even increased civilian support from NATO allies will be forthcoming, let alone substantial military aid that will match America's own vaunted "surge" of an additional 17,000 combat troops. 

The NATO summit will also mark the historic military re-integration of France into the alliance after de Gaulle withdrew French forces in 1966, as well as the admission of Albania and Croatia. This latter move will increase NATO's total membership from 26 to 28 countries.

The toD verdict: The call for NATO members to increase troop numbers in Afghanistan is not new. The International Council on Security and Development, in a report on the increasingly dire security environment in Afghanistan published in 2007, called for NATO members to increase troop commitments in line with their respective GDPs to effectively double total NATO-ISAF forces in the country. The report also called for the easing of the highly contentious caveats that separate national rules of engagement.

However, the NATO summit will represent the first time that Obama invests personal political capital in attempting to convince his NATO allies to act. It is unlikely that this attempt will be successful; one senior German official has said that the German people doubt their security is being protected "in the Hindu Kush". Even officials from Britain, traditionally the US' closest ally, are downplaying expectations of an increase from 8,000 to 10,000 troops.

Bolstering troop numbers in an attempt to recreate the apparent success of the Iraqi surge is a highly controversial move, with many commentators saying that this will simply increase levels of violence in the country. In a report entitled "Caught in the Conflict", eleven aid agencies including OXFAM, ActionAid and CARE have warned that any increase in military deployments that fails to make the protection of civilians its main priority will result in an increased number of civilian deaths and injuries and thus erode support for the international presence. In making Afghanistan the centre-piece of his foreign policy agenda, it is clear that Obama will continue to face increasingly difficult choices in balancing the civilian and military components of any comprehensive strategy.

In other news, officials in the Pakistan city of Peshawar have disclosed that militants destroyed nine NATO vehicles today. The militants, who are suspected Taliban insurgents, used petrol bombs and rockets in a bloodless attack against the Port World logistic terminal on the outskirts of the city. This attack is the latest in a series of strikes against NATO supply routes. Over 75 percent of NATO supplies are shipped to Afghanistan overland through northern Pakistan where the security situation has steadily declined since the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

North Korea missile launch "almost certain"

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said on Friday that a North Korean missile launch was "almost certain", possibly as early as Saturday. His comments came on the same day that US President Barack Obama warned North Korea against such a launch, saying that the United States, together with other members of the International community, would take steps to show Pyongyang that it cannot act "to threaten the safety...of other countries with impunity."

Pyongyang has stated that the aim of the missile test is to place a communications satellite in space. The United States, South Korea and Japan fear that the launch will represent a major leap forward in the DPRK's ballistic missile technology, which could be used in future to deploy nuclear warheads. 

Renewed clashes on Thai-Cambodian border

A brief exchange of gunfire occurred between Thai and Cambodian troops early in the morning on Friday. This was followed by a second, more serious clash between the two sides in the afternoon after talks between the respective commanding officers failed to calm tensions. This second exchange involved heavy weapons including machine guns and RPGs; at least one Thai soldier has been killed with seven others wounded.   

These clashes took place on contested territory near the temple of Preah Vihear mere days before the Cambodia-Thailand Joint Border Committee is scheduled to hold fresh talks aimed at finally resolving the dispute. The incident, which is being described by the Thai authorities as a simple "misunderstanding" while the Cambodians are referring to it as an "intended, aggressive invasion by the Thai military", is only the latest in a series of clashes that date back many years. The last serious encounter, which occurred last October, resulted in the deaths of two Cambodian soldiers.

Credibility of Malaysia's new prime minister "far from acceptable"

Najib Abdul Razak, who was sworn in by Malaysia's king today, has found himself immediately embattled, challenged on grounds of integrity and credibility. Even before his first day in the job, the three members of the opposition alliance had sent a letter to the country's constitutional monarch, Tuanku Mizan Zainal Abidin, asking him to postpone the swearing in ceremony because of Razak's alleged links to corruption and a murder scandal. The corruption charges relate to the purchase of French submarines when he was defense minister, while the latter scandal concerns the murder of the Mongolian mistress of an associate.

Although Razak has dismissed these charges as vicious lies, the opposition parties maintain that, despite a lack of proof, these alleged crimes have eroded the public's confidence in him to the point where his position as the country's head of government is untenable. Opposition MP Karpal Singh said that Razak lacked the confidence of his own party, saying that his credibility was "far from acceptable."

"No preconditions for talks", Pakistan tells India

In a diplomatic rebuke to India, Pakistan announced today that it will not accept any preconditions for talks with its nuclear rival. Responding to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's insistence that a "minimum precondition" for the resumption of talks would be guarantees that Pakistan's soil would not be used as a base for terrorist attacks against India, Pakistan presidential spokesman Farhatullah Barbar said "by putting conditions, we would be going backwards." In his comments at the G20 summit, Singh also appeared to cast doubt on Pakistan's sincerity in pursuing the perpetrators of the terrorist attack on Mumbai that took place on 26 November 2008, saying that Pakistan must do everything in its power to bring the culprits to justice and that "the ball is in the court of Pakistan." Barbar insisted that Pakistan was co-operating fully with Indian authorities.

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