Europe’s real AfPak problem is that our politicians have not convinced public opinion

Posted: June 22, 2009 in Europe's World
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This article makes a similar point to my earlier one in EU Observer (, but is instead in more direct response to one in the current Europe’s World journal by ( – apologies again for all the links, but unfortunately, am still having trouble posting properly.

Anyway, these piece have also attracted some media interest including this piece: – which is an interesting news outlet that I would commend to any readers.

Europe’s real AfPak problem is that our politicians have not convinced public opinion
Summer 2009
by Raffaello Pantucci

Shada Islam presents a sensible, if perhaps overly optimistic, view of European objectives on “AfPak”. It is hard to disagree with many of her fundamental points, in particular that greater coordination on Central-South Asia would be a boon to European and American interests in the region.

Unfortunately, the reality is that such coordination is still lacking and we are unlikely to see a greater push under an EU banner. More European involvement in any sort of “civilian surge” would be welcome, but will be unrealistic until the security situation is stabilised.

European perspectives on AfPak are at a very different stage to those of the United States, and there are two reasons for this. The EU is currently not yet adept at dealing with hard security matters, and the security concerns that emerge in this region are seen in starkly different lights by politicians and public opinion across the European Union. And the former situation is unlikely to improve until the latter is tackled through greater coordination between EU member states, and it is on this that European leaders should now focus their efforts.

Developments in AfPak are presented in a variety of different ways across Europe. For the UK, there is the palpable sense of an immediate terrorist threat posed by plots directed from the region, and that is generally accepted by the general public as the reason why British troops are fighting in Afghanistan. That’s not to say there isn’t heated discussion in the UK, but rather that it is focused on tactics and on whether following America’s lead is the right way to deal with things. In Germany and Spain by contrast, both of which have faced plots directed from groups based in the region, the war in Afghanistan is instead sold as a distant peacekeeping operation. A large proportion of the German public thinks their troops should not be there at all, believing that it is their presence that is attracting trouble to Germany and choosing to ignore the fact that the threat emanating from the region was present before German forces went in there. In between, Europeans hold a wide range of views and opinions, of which most tend towards the view that whatever is going on in AfPak is not directly relevant to their own security.

European leaders, meanwhile, appear for the most part to line up behind the U.S., having reached the conclusion that ongoing instability in the region poses a threat to both regional and international security. Unlike their own public opinions, they tend to appreciate the nature of the AfPak threat and therefore understand why European troops need to be there.
The gulf of understanding between Europe’s political leaders and European voters is at the root of the problem of getting EU countries to take on a bigger role in AfPak, and is also responsible for NATO’s inability to get more European boots on the ground there. The decision to hold an EU-Pakistan summit with a particular focus on security is a welcome move, as is the Commission’s decision to focus more of its aid spending in Pakistan on security and combating extremism. But none of this will help with the public relations deficit at home. European leaders have for the most part made little or no effort to sell their reasons for being involved in the region to their domestic audiences, being clearly fearful of negative political consequences.

A number of European capitals need to reach serious decisions about what they see as their own motives for being involved in AfPak, assuming that they conclude that stability there is vital. And that means making a much greater public outreach effort to ensure that public opinion in their country is also on board. The UK government has already made precisely this sort of outreach effort to explain its foreign policy to a domestic audience, and it is the sort of effort that should be paralleled across Europe. Doing so may lead to some awkward conversations for some of the EU’s national leaders, but until it is done European efforts in the region will remain stymied, leading not just to possible security threats at home but as Shada Islam rightly points out, the possible souring of transatlantic relations.

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