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West European Support for US Military Campaign in Afghanistan - 2001-10-17

Western Europe's first reaction to the United States led military campaign in Afghanistan was one of total support. But as the bombing continues and worries are expressed in European countries about the fate of the Afghanistan's civilian population, some analysts wonder how far Europe is willing to go in backing its major ally.

In the first few days after the military campaign against targets associated with suspected terrorist mastermind Osama Bin Laden and his backers in Afghanistan's Taleban government, Western European leaders stood solidly behind the United States - no one more so than British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

"None of the leaders involved in this action want war. None of our nations want it," he said. "We are a peaceful people. But we know that, sometimes, to safeguard peace, we have to fight," he said.

Though there have been protests on the streets of Brussels, London, and other European cities against the bombing, European leaders have continued to back Washington's decision to retaliate for last month's terrorist attacks in the United States.

Even France, traditionally close to the Arab world and often suspicious of U.S. foreign policy goals, says it supports U.S. military action. But President Jacques Chirac, speaking through an interpreter, says the war against terrorism cannot rely on military means alone.

"The fight against terrorism is a complex and difficult one. It has to be fought on several fronts as well as military action to destroy these terrorist camps in Afghanistan," he says. "We must also work together to bring down terrorist networks all around the world."

Despite Germany's sensitivities about taking part in any international military operation, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, also through an interpreter, promises what he calls Germany's unreserved backing for the U.S. led action.

"Germany, like France, is ready to participate, if requested, acting within our own special constraints, of course," he says. "The military actions are only one part of a global fight against terrorism, a fight we support completely and welcome."

But there are already signs of fissures in Germany's support for the U.S. attacks. The Green Party, which is in coalition with Mr. Schroeder's Social Democrats, is having qualms about the bombing.

In France, where 4 million Muslims live, some officials express fears about the domestic consequences of what they call a clash of civilizations between the West and the Islamic world.

So, how long will the Europeans remain strongly supportive of the U.S. military effort? And how long can the coalition hold together?

The European Affairs editor for London's Financial Times, Quentin Peel, believes the coalition's survival depends on what Washington decides to do next.

"I think it will last through what one might call the first phase, the action in Afghanistan, the action clearly against Osama Bin Laden," he says. "The real question arises with what one might call phase two. Is that going to include Iraq, for example? If that includes Iraq, then I think that the Europeans start to wobble quite seriously," he says.

Mr. Peel says any evidence that Iraq is somehow responsible for the attacks on the United States has to be very strong indeed if Washington is to gain European support for a move against Baghdad.

That opinion is shared by Professor Jerome Sheridan, who heads the Brussels Center of Washington-based American University. He says the coalition's future depends on whether the United States decides to expand its military actions beyond the borders of Afghanistan. "If, for example, the United States would decide that it wants to start attacking targets in Iraq or striking out militarily at Iraq, that is almost certain to drive a wedge between the United States and, at least, some of its European allies, and I'm thinking in particular about France, which has traditionally preached a line of engagement toward the Iraqi regime," he says. "Provided that the United States keeps its goals militarily limited in Afghanistan and provided that it continues to consult with is European allies, I don't see any reason why this coalition cannot continue for some time to come," he says.

Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, says he and his fellow EU heads of state and government will insist when they meet Friday in the Belgian city of Ghent that American military action remain targeted at those who were proven to have been responsible for the September 11 terrorist attacks.