More than ever, the US is in the driver’s seat. While it is setting the pace for the withdrawal, Europeans are trying to leave as soon as possible and hoping for the best after 2014.
The political relationship between Europeans and Americans over Afghanistan did not change much in 2011. Given the continuing pressure from public opinion and the increasing budgetary constraints, the first priority for all European countries involved is to leave as soon as possible. What is holding them up, beyond avoiding a Taliban takeover, is solidarity with the US – the main reason why most of them joined the intervention in the first place and still have more than 30,000 soldiers in Afganistan as part of ISAF. As a consequence, Washington is largely setting the pace for the withdrawal. The target of withdrawing combat troops by 2014 fixed by Barack Obama in June was adopted by NATO and most coalition countries, which are adapting their own timetable to the American one – with occasional US pressure on some countries such as the UK to slow it down. Europeans also agree with Americans on the question of negotiating with the Taliban, but with preconditions that make success unlikely, while Europeans are pessimistic on the capacity of the Karzai government to take over greater responsibility after 2014.
Still, since the policy of “Afghanisation” is key to a responsible withdrawal by Western powers, Europeans have been forthcoming to some extent in their response to American demands for supporting the transition, as the Bonn conference in December showed. Europeans have pledged to maintain civilian funding at least at current levels to underpin the co-operation agreement to be negotiated in the coming year between the EU and Afghanistan, and to extend the EUPOL mission – which has had very limited results – until the end of 2014. Americans are asking Europeans to do even more to support Afghan security forces in the long term, but, given the fallout of the financial crisis, the response will likely be negative.