After weeks of unrelenting prediction, debate and commentary in Washington over what President Obama was doing about troops for Afghanistan, it is refreshing — if somewhat unsettling — to be in Europe. Despite the deep unpopularity of the Afghan conflict in virtually every country here, it is simply not the all-consuming news story that it is in the States.
You would have thought the weekend British papers would be filled with a U.S.-style flood of analysis after a week in which President Obama committed 30,000 more U.S. troops, Prime Minister Brown confirmed the UK would send another 500 and NATO pledged 7,000 more.
But that was not the case. The big weekend news stories were outrage over the huge bonuses announced by taxpayer-rescued RBS bank – and the latest antic by pop star Lady Gaga. Monday, the news channels trumpeted the opening of the two-week Copenhagen climate summit as if it were the year’s hottest new blockbuster movie.
But all that changed at 6 o’clock Monday night, when a bulletin reported what everyone here had been bracing for — the 100th British soldier of the year had been killed that afternoon in Afghanistan. The sniper fire shooting of 23-year-old Lance Corporal Adam Drane, 1st battalion, Royal Anglian Regiment, in Helmand Province made 2009 the deadliest year for British troops since the 1982 Falklands War more than a quarter-century ago.
The BBC and other news channels were swamped with reaction from Prime Minister Brown, from the chief of the British Army and from recent Afghan war widows. The Daily Telegraph, the country’s biggest daily, rushed out a front page that seemed long in the planning: “Afghanistan: 2009. Death toll this year reaches 100. We must steel ourselves, says army chief.” Below: photographs of 99 of the dead soldiers and in the 100th square, a black silhouette. The British have just 9,000 soldiers in Afghanistan — a fraction of the U.S. force of 68,000. Yet they’ve sustained 237 deaths since 2001 — far more in proportion to its force than the U.S. toll of 932. As reported tonight in my [broadcast piece from London](http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/military/july-dec09/britain_12-08.html), the war is unpopular here, and growing more so every day. Ordinary Brits I spoke with expressed a sense of futility — “Adding 500 troops is worthless,” said commuter Peter Lurie. “And there will be more lives lost for a worthless cause.” It was clear that as the official inquiry into the run-up to the Iraq war grinds on, it’s feeding the public’s suspicion that somehow they’re not being leveled with about this war either. Finally, there’s resentment that some wealthy European countries with robust armies — notably France and Germany — aren’t putting their troops in harm’s way the way the U.S. and UK are. “It’s a NATO operation, and I hope those countries that have not sent their troops to the front lines to do the difficult fighting do step up the mark,” the Tories’ No. 2 man on foreign policy, shadow foreign minister David Lidington, told me yesterday. So why wasn’t there a huge public outcry — or even debate — over Brown’s decision to send more British troops? “This is the British way,” said Kensington hair salon manager Simon Russell-Roberts. “If our military commanders decide something, most people here say, ‘Right, then.'” Iraq stretched that bond to the breaking point, of course. But Afghanistan hasn’t yet. Though neither Labour nor the Tories, nor even the Liberals, are ready to lead the anti-war parade, Mr. Obama’s setting of a July 2011 begin-to-wind-down date did set off a flurry of re-positioning, and even confusion. Gordon Brown’s own defense secretary Bob Ainsworth contradicted his chief, saying “You can’t put a time on it.” Conservative Party leader David Cameron at once decried “artificial timetables,” yet on a weekend trip to the battle front, said “time is running out” in Afghanistan. The retired military were skeptical. “I think it’s critical that the date is set,” Col. Richard Kemp, former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, told me. “But I believe it should be secret. … The dangers are enormous if you announce it publicly.” But to Gordon Brown and other elected leaders throughout Europe, the Obama plan was a godsend. For those with troops in the worst danger zones, like the British in vast, Taliban-heavy southern province of Helmand, the ground help is critical. When the British first went there in 2006, said Col. Kemp, “we bit off more than we could chew,” and even with some 8,000 troops earlier this year, “What we’ve been doing up till now in Afghanistan, pretty much, is to hold the line. We never had the forces to consolidate our progress and build on it.” The infusion of 10,000 U.S. Marines in mid-summer is already making a difference, and the Obama plan promises another 9-to-10,000 more. Yet even more valuable is the political help it offers elected European governments that are facing skeptical domestic constituents. The Obama surge appears to be a muscular military response to a deteriorating situation. But it puts them on a glide path to the exit. Still, confusion remains. U.S. Ambassador Louis Susman was grilled on the BBC’s leading Sunday talk program, the [Andrew Marr Show](http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/politics/8397775.stm), about what the date meant. “We’re not going to jump off a cliff,” Susman said, repeating the metaphor used by Secretary Clinton. “We’re going to do it responsibly and conditions on the ground may change.” Marr retorted, “that is the central question, isn’t it — that you can’t in advance declare the end point for a war?” He went on to ask Susman about Conservative leader Cameron saying it’s “optimistic to think that we’ll be bringing troops home before next Christmas.” “Well it may be optimistic,” Susman said, “but we’re hoping it’s realistic.” Even the Obama plan doesn’t go that far. And make no mistake about it, he is setting the pace. “British politicians and leaders around the world were waiting for President Obama to make his decision,” said Guardian newspaper columnist Jonathan Freedland. “If he’d said, ‘we’re winding down the war,’ British politicians would have stampeded to say they agree and start winding down themselves.” European leaders “aren’t ready to be out front of a popular American president,” Freedland added, but once it appears America is drawing down, the Europeans will run, not walk to the exits.