For once, in the eyes of his European critics, US President Donald Trump has done something right.
Europeans in general and Germans in particular have been at odds with Mr. Trump over security issues, in great part because of his initial ambivalence about NATO and the allies’ commitment to mutual defense.
So Monday’s declaration from Mr. Trump that he would keep the United States engaged in Afghanistan and redouble efforts to tame the Taliban and fight terrorism was reassuring. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg was among those praising the US decision, commending President Trump’s “new, conditions-based approach to Afghanistan and the region.”
The German government also applauded Mr. Trump’s announcement. “The federal government welcomes the readiness of the United States to further engage itself long-term in Afghanistan,” a government spokeswoman said. “Our common goal is that no terror attacks are launched from Afghan soil.”
“He has held fast to a significant international deployment in the struggle against terrorism. This is an important signal to alliance partners and to the world.”
Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic party, said it was a positive sign that the United States based its decision on the conditions in Afghanistan rather than the election calendar.
However, Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, a Social Democrat, cautioned that a further US troop buildup could lead to a new wave of refugees into Europe. He called for close consultation between the United States and Europe to avoid such an outcome.
Other political leaders were also nuanced in their praise. While they welcomed the fact that Mr. Trump had backed off from his campaign pledge to withdraw US troops, they criticized the new emphasis he put on the fight against terrorism in the central Asian country.
“The separation of fighting terror from nation building is disastrous and misjudges the core of radicalization in Afghanistan,” the foreign policy expert of the opposition Green party, Omid Nouripour, told Reuters. “Without nation building, you can only fight the symptoms of terror, not terrorism.”
The foreign policy expert for the Social Democrats, the junior partner in the government coalition, said Mr. Trump’s “war rhetoric” was “alarming” and risked inflaming the Afghan conflict.
“Nonetheless,” Niels Annen added, “it is good that the immediate troop withdrawal from Afghanistan that Donald Trump himself demanded in the US campaign has been taken off the table with yesterday’s speech.”
Such a disengagement would have set Afghanistan back by years and made it once again a safe haven for terrorists, Mr. Annen said.
As for Germany’s role, Ms. von der Leyen said she had not discussed any numbers with US Defense Secretary James Mattis. After boosting its troop levels by nearly a fifth last year, Germany would not be the first called upon to increase its presence, she said.
She also soft-pedaled the anti-terrorism emphasis in Mr. Trump’s speech. “Our mission is clearly defined in the mandate, and this is exactly where it remains,” Ms. von der Leyen said.
The Christian Democratic spokesman for foreign policy in parliament, Jürgen Hardt, was unequivocal in his praise of Mr. Trump’s decision.
“With his announcement yesterday, US President Trump clearly acknowledged NATO’s current course in Afghanistan,” Mr. Hardt said in a statement. “He has held fast to a significant international deployment in the struggle against terrorism. This is an important signal to alliance partners and to the world.”
Mr. Hardt went on to link the president’s policy declaration to the ouster of Steve Bannon as White House chief strategist, which he said allowed pragmatists in the administration to gain the upper hand in determining a more realistic policy.
Reports in US media suggested that Washington was ready to expand the current US military presence of 8,400 by some 4,000 troops. Germany and other allies currently have 4,000 troops in Afghanistan.
In his speech, Mr. Trump specifically shifted US strategy from a time-based to a conditions-based approach. As a result, he said, there would be no announcements of timing or troop levels. He emphasized that all resources – diplomatic, economic and military – would be deployed. So he did not exclude an eventual political settlement that would embrace “elements of the Taliban.”
Mr. Trump also called upon Pakistan to “immediately” cease harboring terrorist organizations and to demonstrate its commitment to peace in the region. Likewise, he said the United States will be expecting more help from India to attain shared objectives in the region.
Darrell Delamaide is an editor with Handelsblatt Global based in Washington DC.