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RELATED STORY:NATO leaders go on the record about Afghanistan

RELATED STORY:Despite shifts in public opinion, NATO troops confident they are making a difference

Defense Secretary Robert Gates sounds out NATO defense ministers this week in search of more support for the war in Afghanistan at a time when many Europeans seem unsure why they’re fighting the war in the first place.

Critics say European leaders have not sufficiently explained to their citizens how the deaths of their uniformed countrymen make them safer.

And despite assertions last month by NATO Secretary-General Anders Rasmussen that the alliance will not bow out of Afghanistan, there are myriad reasons why the U.S. should not expect the largest NATO countries to offer up more combat troops.

To begin with, it’s no longer 2001, when the trauma and outrage that followed the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. prompted NATO members to quickly offer military assistance for the American effort to oust the Taliban from Afghanistan.

“No one has made the case for what we’re doing in Afghanistan,” said Olivier Grouille, an analyst at the London-based Royal United Services Institute, a defense think tank. “The public does not buy the argument that the streets of Britain are safer from domestic terrorism because we’re fighting in Afghanistan.”

Judging from polls, the same could be said of Europeans in general.

Since the Bonn Agreement provided the frame work for an international effort in Afghanistan in December 2001, public support for the war in Europe and Canada has gradually eroded, even as politicians continue to call it a war of necessity.

Nearly two-thirds of Europeans are pessimistic about NATO’s ability to stabilize Afghanistan, according to a poll released in September by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a nonprofit policy center dedicated to strengthening trans-Atlantic cooperation. At the same time, the poll reports 56 percent of Americans as optimistic about the mission.

Fifty-five percent of western Europeans and 69 percent of eastern Europeans want to reduce or remove their soldiers from Afghanistan, according to the poll.

Violence has risen dramatically in Afghanistan. The International Security Assistance Force lost 294 troops in 2008, largely a “direct consequence” of a rise in Taliban and insurgent activity in the south and east, according to a NATO analysis released in September. This year’s total is already at 410, according to the independent Web site, icasualties.org, and fighting is spreading to once-peaceful provinces in the country.

Meanwhile, ISAF commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal has warned that the war might be lost if the U.S. troop level — about 68,000 — is not increased by as many as 60,000 troops.

The Obama administration is deliberating on the “McChrystal Report” and reviewing its strategy in Afghanistan. It is simultaneously being criticized for stalling and rushing to a decision before the Afghan national elections are resolved. A Nov. 7 runoff date was announced Tuesday.

“Where those troops are going to come from is a tough political question not only in this country but in several of the European countries,” according to Leo Michel, a senior research fellow at the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said this month that he’ll add 500 troops to the 9,000 now in Afghanistan. But he set conditions for the increase, including more help from other allies.

Apart from sheer numbers of boots on the ground, rules of engagement differ by nation, inhibiting ISAF’s overall flexibility, and any meaningful troop increase will come almost exclusively from U.S ranks. A common joke among the U.S. ranks is that ISAF stands for “I Saw Americans Fighting,” although non-U.S. troops have been engaged in brutal battles, too.

In countries such as Germany, with roughly 4,000 of its troops in Afghanistan’s north, the 2001 rationale for pitching in does not reflect what soldiers are now seeing, said James Goldgeier, a George Washington University professor in international affairs and a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“The German public and the German parliament were sold on this mission as a humanitarian intervention,” he said. “They’re there to build roads, build schools, purify water … which is important, but they were never really told they’re there to fight a war.”

Troops in Afghanistan say they know their countrymen are skeptical about the war and of pouring resources into it. But they note that more troops could mean fewer casualties.

“I think we are taking far too many casualties for the work we are doing,” said Lance Cpl. Mark Ellerby, a medic from Lincoln City, England, who has been attached to the 7th Platoon, part of the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland in southern Helmand province. “I understand why we are here and what we might be doing. But unless something happens, like more resources and more troops, I don’t think it’s going to change.”

Lance Cpl. Jay Vorster, 27, a British medic, is serving her first tour in Afghanistan. She sees fellow Britons as dubious about the war but believes they will hang in there.

“It is very hard for the people back in the U.K. to see what it is all about,” Vorster said. “But I think they will have the stamina to stay committed and help the people of Afghanistan. I don’t ever see Britain giving up. That’s what the British army is all about. They don’t just get up and walk away.”

Success in Afghanistan will come down to U.S. leadership, Michel said.

“If we show political determination and are smart on the strategy and resourcing, Europe will stay with us,” he said. “They are not going to stay there in the absence of the United States or maintain their current levels if they see us drastically cutting back.”

Goldgeier said he sees Afghanistan heading in the direction of an all-U.S. effort, pointing to the withdrawal of Dutch and Canadian forces in the next two years.

“If even the countries that are fighting are saying they’re going to get out, we’re heading in that direction,” he said.

Grouille said the timetable for real progress in Afghanistan is now a year, roughly in time for the U.S. midterm elections in 2010.

“[Obama] is not going to let [Afghanistan] turn into the issue of his presidency,” he said. “If [NATO] can leave behind a state that can handle its own security and keep a lid on the Pakistan border and deny the Taliban … we can claim success. If it goes back to how it looked in 2001, that’s a failure.”

Stars and Stripes reporter Dianna Cahn contributed to this story.

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