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Faraway Afghan war is 'out of sight, out of mind' in Europe

04 october 2011, 13:10
0
French soldier in Afghanistan. ©Reuters
French soldier in Afghanistan. ©Reuters
A faraway, never-ending conflict, the war in Afghanistan has few fans in Europe where governments are under pressure to bring home some 30,000 troops 10 years after the US-led invasion, AFP reports.

With a colossal debt crisis directly threatening their daily lives, Europeans have little time for the distant Afghan conflict as they worry about the risk of another recession hitting their pockets.

The NATO air war in Libya -- closer to Europe's shores, spearheaded by Britain and France -- also knocked the rugged battlefields of Afghanistan off the front pages.

"The less the war is in the papers, the less people will support it. It's as simple as out of sight, out of mind," said Bryn Parry, founder of the British military charity Help for Heroes, which raises funds for wounded soldiers.

On October 7, when the war against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda hits 10 years, longer than the two world wars combined, no major demonstrations are planned in Europe to mark the anniversary.

"It never really got a lot of attention, not even in the beginning. Today it's almost zero," Jan Techau, director of Carnegie Europe think-tank, told AFP. "People don't like it, but they don't really think about it a lot."

But when asked to think about it, Europeans suggest they are unhappy with a war that has killed some 750 European soldiers, according to the website icasualties.org, and a majority are pessimistic about the outcome.

A poll by the German Marshall Fund think-tank showed that only 28 percent of Europeans are optimistic about the chances of stabilising Afghanistan, while two in three want their governments to reduce or withdraw their troops.

Only three percent want more troops there.

"A feeling of weariness is prevailing in Europe," said Etienne de Durant, researcher at the French Institute of International Relations, adding that governments failed to explain to voters what's at stake in Afghanistan.

The Dutch government collapsed over the Afghan adventure in February 2010, and the new prime minister decided to withdraw combat troops from the battlefield and replace them with military trainers.

Other NATO allies, from London to Paris and Berlin, are preparing their own withdrawals. Europeans account for around 30,000 of the 130,000 troops in Afghanistan, while the United States provides the bulk.

Britain plans to pull out 500 of its 9,500 troops by the end of 2012. France will withdraw 1,000 from its 4,000-strong mission the same year, while Germany has yet to reveal a timetable for its 5,000 soldiers.

Europe is proceeding in lockstep with the United States, under an alliance plan to transfer security responsibility to Afghan forces with the goal of withdrawing combat troops by the end of 2014.

Despite the transition, politicians have avoided turning the war into a major political debate because "it's not a vote-getter," said Techau, a former German defence ministry official.

"Politicians try to keep it low and for the population it has always been pretty low on the agenda," he said, noting that at the time of the 2009 German elections only three percent of voters cited Afghanistan as an important issue.

The media have also turned their attention to other conflicts, although a Taliban assault on NATO headquarters and the US embassy in Kabul last month and the assassination of former president Burhanuddin Rabbani generated headlines.

Parry, of Hope for Heroes, said he was concerned by the loss of coverage because casualties are still occurring. Britain has lost 382 soldiers, second to the United States which has suffered around 1,800 fallen troops in 10 years.

"People have to remember that when we finally have peace, for those people who were wounded they will never have peace, they will still be fighting with their injuries," Parry said.

"The long-term effects of a war are not over when the shooting stops."

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