WHILE AMERICAN POLITICIANS SPENT THE last months of 2005 arguing over the U.S. military presence in Iraq, their counterparts in the Netherlands were debating the future of the Dutch contingent in Afghanistan. At issue is The Hague's pledge to deploy slightly over 1,000 Dutch troops to the restive Uruzgan province when NATO assumes responsibility for southern Afghanistan this summer. The Netherlands' skittishness makes for an important cautionary tale not only about the near-farcical indecision of a European ally in the war on terror, but more important, the risks inherent in outsourcing ever-greater responsibility for Afghanistan to NATO, as the Bush administration evidently hopes to do.
The debacle with the Dutch began this fall, when the country's military intelligence service produced a report describing the treacherous conditions in Uruzgan and predicting casualties if the Netherlands dispatched forces there. Opposition parliamentarians began to rail against the mission, buoyed by public opinion; one poll found a whopping 71 percent of Netherlanders opposed to it.
Rather than confront and puncture these doubts, the tripartite coalition government in The Hague chose to drag its feet. Despite reassurances from the United States and NATO that Dutch soldiers would receive swift reinforcements if they came under fire, the cabinet further delayed making any decision, until at last endorsing the deployment just before Christmas--but on the condition of parliamentary approval. Artfully describing its move as an "intention" rather than a "decision," the Dutch government thus passed the buck once again until February, when the parliament should render final judgment.
Meanwhile, the Netherlands' waffling has snarled the defense planning of its allies. British and Canadian troops are slated to comprise the bulk of the NATO deployment in southern Afghanistan, yet neither government can know the precise number or type of forces it should send until The Hague makes up its mind. Likewise, the Australians--who were counting on Dutch logistical support to help them stand up a 200-man Provincial Reconstruction Team in southern Afghanistan this spring--are left in limbo. From Canberra to Ottawa, the sound of teeth-grinding is audible.
But the irresponsibility of the Dutch is not even half the story. The bigger question is, Why has the Bush administration embraced a military strategy for southern Afghanistan that is so dependant on fickle partners? The current mess is a predictable consequence of the Pentagon's determination to have NATO assume more responsibility in Afghanistan and as fast as possible. And it's a portent of even bigger problems to come.
It has long been an article of faith among foreign policy cognoscenti that the Atlantic alliance should be doing more in Afghanistan. Under U.S. pressure, NATO has twice enlarged its area of operations since taking command of the U.N.-sanctioned International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in the summer of 2003: first moving from Kabul into northern Afghanistan later that year, then expanding westward in June 2005. The swing into southern Afghanistan has been presented as the next logical step in this process.
But it isn't logical at all. NATO's presence in Afghanistan was originally premised on the idea that large swaths of the country were stabilizing--in need of the peacekeeping and post-conflict reconstruction that European militaries could deliver, but less and less a war zone. But this assumption simply does not hold for the south. There, the Taliban and al Qaeda continue to wage what American forces describe as an increasingly sophisticated and vicious insurgency, making 2005 the deadliest year for U.S. forces in Afghanistan since the post-9/11 invasion.
The higher casualties also reflect the decision by American forces to push into what were, until recently, Taliban sanctuaries--remote mountain redoubts in northern Helmand, Kandahar, Zabul, and Uruzgan provinces. The result has been extraordinarily intense close-quarter combat with insurgents. An American company commander in Qalat estimated in October that upwards of 75 percent of his unit's contacts with the enemy have been within hand-grenade range.
Will NATO forces continue to press as aggressively into these areas, even if it means that they will lose more men (which it almost certainly does)? The Canadian troops already on the ground in Kandahar, to their credit, have made clear their intention to follow the Americans' example. But the commander of the Canadian force has also bluntly acknowledged "a gap, both in technical capability, and size and capacity" between U.S. and NATO forces.
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.
Above all, however, the Bush administration needs to stop thinking about Afghanistan as a burden to be shrugged off. Washington will be on the right track when it starts doing a little more listening to its friends in Kabul--and a little less worrying about whether the Netherlands is coming along for the ride.
Vance Serchuk is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.