The Magazine

Dutch Retreat?

The perils of turning Afghanistan over to NATO.

Jan 16, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 17 • By VANCE SERCHUK
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The insurgents, for their part, will certainly look to exploit fault lines within NATO, targeting members of the alliance with an eye toward fracturing public support back home. So all that feet-shuffling in the Netherlands could, in effect, paint a big target on the back of Dutch soldiers, should they deploy. Likewise, it remains to be seen just how stalwart public opinion in Britain and Canada will be. Military intelligence has evidently warned London to be prepared for the heaviest casualties since the Falklands.

Then there are problems of coordination and sustainability. Will the different national contingents in southern Afghanistan work effectively with each other? And how will they work with the U.S. Special Forces who will remain in theater? Will NATO forces be able to manage the same kind of complex land-air maneuvers that have proven so useful in drawing out and eliminating Taliban fighters? Also, because command of the international force changes every six months, the quality and performance of its headquarters has a marked tendency to vary; contrast the cautious and bureaucracy-laden approach taken by Eurocorps, for instance, with the professional and assertive conduct of the Turkish military. The British are set to take command in Kabul for NATO's first rotation through the south later this year--no doubt a good thing--but what happens on the second, third, and fourth rotations?

Oddly enough, it may prove extremely difficult for NATO to "fail" in southern Afghanistan during its first six months there. Expectations are so low at this point that anything less than a spectacular collapse will probably be seized by Brussels, the Pentagon, and all other interested parties as proof of success.

But this misses the point. Not so long ago, the Bush administration insisted that the mission should determine the coalition, not the other way around. Does it really make sense to hand southern Afghanistan to a coalition of British, Canadian, and Dutch forces under the NATO flag while the counterinsurgency is in full swing? Putting aside why it might not be a mistake, what exactly makes it necessary?

In truth, NATO's expansion into southern Afghanistan isn't being driven by conditions on the ground or by what makes sense for winning the war there. Rather, it is a function of the Pentagon's misplaced desire to reduce its commitments in the Middle East and bludgeon some defense reform out of Brussels in the process.

The Bush administration furiously denies that NATO expansion should be seen as an American exit strategy, but this denial would seem more credible if the Pentagon didn't then explicitly link its 2,500-man drawdown in Afghanistan to the alliance's growing presence there. The danger here goes well beyond the narrow question of manpower. To a much greater degree than the Bush administration seems to appreciate, success in Afghanistan depends on a good-as-gold, long-term security guarantee from the United States. The survival of the Taliban, in turn, is contingent on a belief that the insurgents will outlast the Americans; that, sooner or later, Washington will tire of a grinding guerrilla war and go home.

The United States needs to leave no doubt that its military will continue fighting in Afghanistan as long as the democratically elected government in Kabul needs help. For the same reason, irrespective of whether a diminution in the number of American soldiers is operationally doable, the Pentagon would have been wise to skip the press release and implement its drawdown quietly. Simply put, there was no strategic advantage to be gained in announcing to the world that there will be fewer U.S. forces in Afghanistan this year.

Afghanistan's leaders certainly understand this. Senior officials in Kabul, tribal elders in the south, and newly elected legislators have all expressed concern about the troop reductions. "I would not like them to leave," Mullah Naquibullah, a tribal leader in Kandahar, told the New York Times last month.

The White House should pay heed. In the months ahead, the Bush administration needs to make clear that it still takes its bilateral security relationship with Afghanistan seriously. It can do this by returning to, and reinvigorating, the U.S.-Afghan strategic partnership that Presidents Bush and Karzai signed eight months ago, as well as holding off on any talk about NATO expansion into eastern Afghanistan--at least until the alliance has proven itself in the south. President Bush should also take advantage of his upcoming trip to South Asia to visit Kabul and reaffirm America's long-term commitment there.