Image via Wikipediastepped in last month as head of combined US and Nato forces in Afghanistan, many European governments have feared the US general would try and extend the time and scope of the military surge to give US forces a better chance of winning over the Pashtun population in the south and delivering a knock-out blow to the Taliban.
That is exactly what he is signalling in his first media interviews since taking over – and precisely what most European countries do not believe is possible.
In discussions with European generals, diplomats and officials – each involved in their government’s Afghan policy – a common fear emerges. That US president Barack Obama will not be able to refuse demands from Gen Petraeus to extend the surge well beyond July 2011; that the general will continue to push for a continuation of military strategy; and that he will decline any suggestion of opening negotiations with the Taliban – something that many Europeans are very keen on.
Every European government faces pressure to withdraw or reduce troop numbers, whether because of defence cuts, recession, public anger or parliamentary opposition. Similar factors are also turning many in the US Congress, particularly Democrats, against the war. The latest NBC and Wall Street Journal poll found that seven in 10 Americans did not believe the war would end successfully.
But no government says it wants to cut and run. Everyone realises there is too much at stake, not just in Afghanistan but also for the region and Nato credibility. An overhasty withdrawal could lead to a Taliban takeover and leave in the dirt tens of thousands of Afghans who have supported western forces. What Europe wants is a negotiated endgame and regional settlement – and that must include talking to the Taliban.
European officials are coming to the consensus that they would like the Nato summit and Mr Obama’s Afghan policy review – both at the end of the year – to reach a position where negotiating with the Taliban is the political strategy around which military strategy is determined.