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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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.