Dutch shatter Nato's unity in Afghanistan
The departing Dutch troops leave Nato with a military, but especially a political problem. The unanimous solidarity among Nato-partners in Afghanistan has been broken.
The departure of Dutch troops from Afghanistan, which seems inevitable after the collapse of the cabinet, is a serious setback for Nato. From a military pespective, the widely appreciated Dutch contribution will be missed. But the Dutch pullback will be an even bigger problem on a political level.
Nato likes to emphasise that all of its 28 member states, ranging from the US to Albania, currently contribute to what is the first major ground war in the alliance’s history. In addition, 13 non-Nato partners, including Australia and the United Arab Emirates, are also party to its mission in Afghanistan.
The Netherlands will now become the first country to turn its back on the unpopular and taxing war. Nato’s unity – frail to begin with - has been broken, for all to see.
Some countries, including the Netherlands until now, were willing to take more risks than others. The United States is currently deploying 30,000 extra soldiers to Afghanistan and feels the Europeans are not doing their share. "Now is a time for Nato to show more commitment to Afghanistan, not less," the London Times wrote in its editorial on Monday.
Fissure becomes a crevice
While there were some small earlier fissures, the Dutch departure is the first visible crack to appear in the alliance’s solidarity. It might yet widen into a crevice, as the Netherlands is not the only country where the war enjoys little parliamentary or public support.
Canada has already announced it will be putting an end to its current mission. The parliamentary mandate for its deployment to Kandahar will expire at the end of 2011.
On Sunday Canadian daily The Globe and Mail wrote Dutch retreat would leave a "dangerous military vacuum" in Afghanistan’s south.
According to the newspaper, Nato leadership in Brussels has only now realised that both the Dutch and the Canadians really intend to go through with their announced retreats.
On Sunday, however, Nato still assured Afghans of its continued support. "We have invested a lot in Afghanistan, and we will continue to invest in Afghanistan because it is an investment in our own security" a spokesperson then told the BBC. "Nato will stay as long as necessary."
Formally still a partner
The Canadian government is seeking a less rigorous retreat than the Dutch are. Canada assumes it can transfer most of its combat duties to the Americans, but will remain involved in training and reconstruction efforts.
Formally speaking, Nato has not given up on the Netherlands as a partner in Afghanistan. As late as Saturday, after the cabinet fell, a Nato spokesperson said he hoped the Dutch would maintain a reduced presence in Uruzgan, the province where it currently has troops stationed. "The Dutch decision is for the Dutch to take, and we will not interfere with that," the spokesperson said. "But the secretary general continues to believe that the best way forward would be a new, smaller Dutch mission, including a provincial reconstruction team in Uruzgan."
Australia, which currently maintains a smaller force in Uruzgan, has already announced it will not be taking over the Netherlands’ leading role in the province.
With the Dutch gone, American soldiers will probably take over the lead in Uruzgan. It is unknown to what extent the American president Obama took this possibility into account when he announced he would send 30,000 extra troops to Afghanistan in December. The majority of this detachment was intended for deployement in Helmand and Kandahar, the two largest problematic areas. Soldiers deployed elsewhere cannot easily be missed here. In Helmand, for instance, American marines have encountered unexpectedly heavy resistance in the city of Marjah during operation Moshtarak.
The US will also need to assume the duties of the Dutch Provincial Reconstruction Team, even though development aid requires nurturing local relationships over the course of years. Also, the Dutch PRT and its American counterparts – mostly active in the eastern parts of the country – have very different methods. The Dutch PRT tries to reinforce local Afghan power structures from the get-go, while the Americans tend to maintain tighter control over their own projects.
The Dutch departure changes little for the five Dutch NGOs currently active in Uruzgan, since they operated without military escort.
When Obama announced he wanted to begin withdrawing American soldier in July 2011, Afghans were left aghast. They fear Afghanistan will once again be left to its own devices. Uruzgan’s governor Asadulah Hamdam now thinks his province might be first. "If [the Dutch] withdraw and leave these projects incomplete, then they will leave a big vacuum," he said.