British forces joined the United States yesterday in attacking Afghan targets in a bid to cripple the Taliban regime and take out terrorist operations there. Other European governments have pledged their support for the military action. RFE/RL correspondent Kathleen Knox explores what they are likely to offer in addition to moral support.
Prague, 8 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S.-led strikes on Afghan targets began last night with Britain alongside the United States at the forefront of the campaign.
British forces took part in the bombing of Taliban and terrorist targets across Afghanistan. And its government has played a prominent role in presenting the case for military action against the Taliban for refusing to hand over terror suspect Osama bin Laden.
With such wholehearted support from the U.K. and its Prime Minister Tony Blair, it was hardly a surprise to hear U.S. President George W. Bush call Britain "our staunch friend" in his address to the nation last night.
Leaders across Europe -- led by German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder -- have lined up to support the air strikes. The European Union said they had its backing.
Both Blair and Bush said France and Germany -- along with Canada and Australia -- would assist as the campaign unfolds. But the question remains: What concrete contribution could Europe really make?
Edward Foster is head of the European security program at the UK's Royal United Services Institute. He says the specifics are an open question.
"There is an assumption that British special forces are already inside Afghanistan and that they're coordinated closely with those of the U.S. The French hold certain niche specialties in special forces operation -- insertion of small teams for observation or designating targets. This is the sort of thing they might lend themselves to, though they don't have the same history of cooperation with the U.S., which is the sort of thing that makes the U.K. SAS [special forces] extremely useful."
French President Jacques Chirac yesterday said French forces would take part in military operations launched by the U.S. and Britain against targets in Afghanistan. France's Defense Minister Alain Richard went further in an interview with RTL Radio today. He said France might offer special forces, air facilities, and naval support.
Foster says air power will be key.
"I would imagine the role that most obviously suggests itself for French, German, and Italian, and probably other allied forces, is in the air. There will be the role -- now we're in daylight and the dust is settling after the initial wave of strikes -- for battle-damage assessment. This will need a reconnaissance effort which is fairly substantial and sustained."
He says Germany's problem is that it has failed to keep its air force technologically up-to-date. But he says the political solidarity is the most important aspect.
Kevin O'Brien is deputy director of London's International Centre for Security Analysis. He says both France and Germany would have a lot to contribute.
"Both those countries can offer everything from ground soldiers -- should it come to that -- right up to, which would be more likely, logistical intelligence and other types of strategic support. Germany, particularly, I would think would be offering things like humanitarian logistics, medical, etc., support."
As for other European countries, O'Brien says you have to differentiate between what they could offer and what they are likely to offer. As NATO allies they are required to support any member who is attacked.
"In this sense, any of them could offer military support in terms of front-end forces. The 'would' -- the more likely option -- is that they would support with humanitarian logistics."
He says countries like France, Germany, and other NATO member states have air power capabilities of a substantial nature:
"But one problem we've seen in the past is the ability of other member states to link up with U.S. air forces as they advance technologically. This has been a demonstrated restriction most recently, for example, in the Kosovo conflict. I'm not sure there's been much done as of yet to update the technical links between many of these different air forces. So in that sense it would make operating together difficult, but not impossible."
Foster says other countries are likely to follow France and Italy, which also has offered its troops.
"The problem is not signing up states who wish to stand up and be counted, but finding a useful military role for those forces."
This might lead them to play a larger role in the diplomatic and humanitarian aspects of the campaign, seeking a lasting political solution for Afghanistan and providing aid to the many people going hungry there.
But both analysts say the operation is not without risks for its European backers.
O'Brien says any country supporting the operation is risking becoming a target of further terror attacks.
"Politically, there's also the danger that alongside the possibility of terrorist attacks there will be the loss of faith or reputation by certain sectors of the Arab or Muslim world in the U.K. and its political leadership in many things such as the Mideast peace process."
Foster says the risks increase the longer the campaign continues, especially if it takes an unexpected turn and the international coalition falls away, leaving just Britain and the U.S.
"Potentially, the U.K. could find itself in an alliance of two in the way that has characterized joint activity over Iraq over the last few years, where basically everybody else has peeled off from that coalition."
But he adds that this does not look likely for now.
Meanwhile, NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson said today that the allies have agreed to release five NATO AWAC early-warning radar planes and their crews for deployment in the United States in order for the U.S. to free up its own radar planes for use elsewhere. And he said the assistance wouldn't end there.
"Yesterday's actions were carried out by two NATO allies. Other NATO allies have pledged direct military support as this operation unfolds. The alliance itself will continue to provide military and other support."