Protesters: Afghan War Is A Drain On Europe

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Support for the Afghan war has increasingly soured in Europe. Voters there are questioning the mission of the nine-year-old conflict and the drain on debt-riddled economies. In Portugal, protesters took to the streets of Lisbon to register their opposition as NATO leaders closed out their conference.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Over the weekend, President Obama and other NATO leader agreed that Afghanistan's own forces would take responsibility for the country's security in about three years - 2014 to be precise.

Here's the president speaking at the NATO conference in Lisbon.

President BARACK OBAMA: Our goal is that the Afghans have taken the lead in 2014, and in the same way that we have transitioned in Iraq, we will have successfully transitioned so that we are still providing a training and support function.

INSKEEP: OK. Let's pay attention to that last phrase - training and support function. That phrase means that allied forces will being staying put in Afghanistan, well beyond 2014. As NPR's Eric Westervelt reports from Lisbon, that part of the plan is not so popular in Europe.

(Soundbite of chanting in foreign language)

ERIC WESTERVELT: Along Avenida Liberdade, the Portuguese riot police were dressed as if they were about to face insurgents in battle: full body armor, automatic weapons, a few cradled shotguns. But this wasn't Kandahar or even the protest-filled streets of Athens. The police faced only the likes of graphic designer Paulo Michad, who with his two young children and thousands of others had taken to the tree-lined avenue to voice opposition to NATO's combat mission in Afghanistan.

With unemployment here, at nearly 11 percent - the worst in two decades - and an on-going Euro debt crisis, Michad says the war is a drain on Europe.

Mr. PAULO MICHAD (Graphic designer): It's not good for the Europe. I don't see the benefit. Our unemployment it's almost one million of people that not have jobs. It's more important for us - work.

WESTERVELT: Portugal has barely one hundred soldiers in Afghanistan today, and NATO overall is providing about 40,000 troops to America's more than 90,000. U.S. forces continue to do the bulk of the fighting and take the most casualties.

But those facts have done little to assuage a European public, weary of the conflict. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, there was European support -however halting - for the U.S.-led war effort. But nine years on there's a sense that there's been a collective loss of focus.

More and more Europeans are asking just what the Afghan mission is now. Is it still the original one - to stop the country from being a base for al-Qaida and the Taliban? Or, has the mission drifted into something far more hard to define: state-building? Is it also about educating women or lofty goals of democracy?

Mr. NICK WITNEY (European Council on Foreign Relations): And as time's gone by, it's become apparent that this is less and less doable anyway, no matter how noble an ambition it might be.

WESTERVELT: Nick Witney is a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. He says polls show that voters in Europe no longer buy the argument that the defense of European capitals from terrorism depends on combat in the Hindu Kush.

Mr. WITNEY: And they're more and more coming around to realize that in terms of dealing with the extremist Islamic terrorist problem in Europe - which is a very real one - being involved in combat operations in Afghanistan is counterproductive.

WESTERVELT: Counterproductive, he says, because the prolonged war risks fomenting ever greater anti-Western hostility in the Muslim world. It's partly because of increasing European frustration with the war that some NATO leaders this weekend seemed to send out dual messages: one to Afghans saying we won't abandon you after 2014 and another to voters suggesting the transition plan means an exit strategy.

So it increasingly looks like any combat in Afghanistan after four years will most likely be done by Americans alone. Dutch combat forces have already pulled out. The Canadians are ending their combat mission in Afghanistan next year, and will switch to a training role. Poland's leaders say they want their Afghan involvement to become a pure training mission in 2012. And British Prime Minister David Cameron has signaled that U.K. forces will not be in a combat role after 2014.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Lisbon.

(Soundbite of music)

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