NATO in Afghanistan – Zombies in a Vicious Circle (18 Sep 2009)

Recent casualities among the Dutch soldiers fighting in Afghanistan have come at a very inopportune moment for the political and militairy leadership of the Netherlands. Discussion has begun, inside and outside Parliament, as to what form the Dutch presence in that country could take, when Dutch leadership of NATO troops in the province Uruzgan terminates at the end of next year. American pressure on the government in The Hague to remain active in Afghanistan, militarily if possible, is considerable and is likely to increase. On the other hand, increasing doubt and criticism among the public forces the political top to rethink the meaning of the project and, one step further, reflect on the question as to whether membership of NATO remains at all meaningful for the Netherlands. The continuing loss of life, the duration of the war (longer than either of both world wars in the twentieth century), and the apparent hopelessness of the undertaking are eroding whatever was there as a public foundation for the exercise. The death toll among the Dutch soldiers serving in Afghanistan reached 21 when last week a 44-year-old sergeant major riding in an open jeep hit an improvised explosive device. A few days before that a 26-year-old Dutch commando had been killed in a gun battle.
In the meantime the government has regularly signalled that it is ready to discuss the continuation of the Dutch contribution in Afghanistan, albeit in a modified format. That admission weakens their negotiation position vis-à-vis the United States, as well as vis-à-vis partners who are supposed to substitute for the Dutch. The government’s position was weakened once before with the earlier extension of the mandate, when the minister in charge said more than he should have. The Hague has been doubly warned because of the tragedy in Bosnia, at Srebrenica, where thousands of Moslems were slaughtered under the eyes of passive Dutch UN troops, something that resulted from Dutch indulgence in the face of agreements by allies that were broken.
The American generals, directly responsible for the Afghanistan campaign, who visit The Hague these days are meeting Cabinet members apparently hobbled by what they feel is an insoluble dilemma. There are three arguments that the Dutch government uses to justify a longer stay in Afghanistan. They will sound very familiar to the American public. The aim of the mission is good – pacification and democratisation of Afghanistan. It would be a shame to give up what has already been achieved. And the soldiers in the field deserve support, their losses should not have been in vain. Immediately after the death of the sergeant major last week, the commander of the Dutch forces, Peter van Uhm (who himself lost a son in Afghanistan) made a for the Netherlands unusual direct appeal to the public: “I once again express the hope that the population of the Netherlands will remain standing as one block behind our soldiers and their home front, and will support them in their difficult work.” This startling appeal to the patriotism of a nation that normally is averse to expressions of patriotism offered a glimpse of the tormented state of mind among those responsible for Afghanistan policy.
Uhm’s appeal reflects the official story: the Dutch do not wage war, but accomplish work, difficult work to be sure. The soldiers repeat this message to the reporters embedded with them, and so it gets multiplied in the Dutch media. In one place a school has been built or patched up, in another the road has been lined with streetlights. The Dutch mission is supposed to be one of reconstruction, a reconstruction that must spread over the country like an ink blot. Because of Taleban activities there is a temporary need for a bit more fighting, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. It does not make sense to talk with the “hard-core Taleban”, but perhaps the ink blot will convince a number of doubters. So the story goes.
Should the Dutch government, and behind it that of the United States, be concerned about public opinion in what is perhaps the most reliable and certainly the most subservient ally in the Afghan operations? The Ministry of Defence recently held that public opinion against the light, and found that a majority was against the mission, but 57% of polled citizens claimed to be proud of the soldiers. A ‘turnaround’, declared the quality newspaper NRC Handelsblad, with respect to the Netherlands military disaster in Srebrenica. This explains Uhm’s concerns. How will the allies react when the Dutch make themselves scarce?
A professor at the Netherlands defence Academy summed it up: “from the very beginning of the mission there has never been much support among the Dutch population for Uruzgan. Never more than one third stood behind it.” He reiterates the point that people in all of Europe became very sceptical about the idea of a “war on terror”, after the invasion of Iraq.
The Dutch majority that has turned against the mission in Afghanistan is well aware that it rests on a shaky basis. Those who support it make much of the need to think of the alliance as a whole. If only to remain credible as a partner there seems little choice but to aim for a compromise guaranteeing further Dutch presence over there, they say. What this argument overlooks is that notwithstanding the NATO stamp on the military campaign, this organisation has virtually no influence on the strategic and tactical decisions that are being made. The war – it is nothing else in which we are involved – is being waged by Americans. The Allies serve as fronts, meant to beguile the world into believing that we are dealing here with a true international intervention in the service of world peace.
In the meantime, a more fundamental question for the American commanders than Dutch public opinion is the disunity of the allied performance. On a spectrum ranging from hard and relentless military action to the soft winning of hearts and minds there are quite a few variations. The Americans and Brits fight, the Germans concentrate on reconstruction, and the Dutch are found somewhere in between. Unexpected incidents may complicate things from time to time, and the roles may be reversed. The commander of the German contingent, in the relatively peaceful northern area of Kunduz, felt threatened by two tankers which had fallen into the hands of the Taleban. Disturbed by a vision of them being turned into huge bombs on wheels driving into a German camp, he called for air support. Dozens of dead Afghans were the result. This incident occurred during a phase in which the Americans want to be more prudent with respect to the lives of the population.
As far as we can see there is no sign of the change that President Obama had announced, also for Afghanistan, during his election campaign. In his Washington as much as the one of his predecessor serious interest in what is actually happening in that faraway country is simply not to be found. As Obama has confirmed: we are in Afghanistan to wipe out Al Qaeda and to make sure that this lot can do us and our allies no more harm. For Americans it is not easy to distinguish between Al Qaeda and the Taleban, the latter standing in for the invisible terrorists who might be anywhere, if they remain relevant at all. That every Afghan death by allied fire creates potential re-enforcement for the Taleban does count for something in the capitals of the allies, but since NATO does not decide things this consideration cannot influence policy. In most of the countries that participate in the Afghan mission, this is done against the will of the majority of their populations. But with the now classic American-style appeal to “support the troops” that has wafted over the Atlantic, along with the fairy tales about all the good things that the Afghans may experience because of the mission, those majorities are made to doubt their opposition, as continues to be revealed by the contradictions in opinion polls.
To recapitulate: When the Americans invaded Afghanistan in the autumn of 2001 their aim was to capture, dead or alive, those that were believed to be responsible for the September 11 attacks. It had nothing to do with Afghanistan, or the Afghans, and absolutely nothing with the education level of Afghan women. The Americans were not in the mood to have others looking over their shoulders and responded with a “thanks, but no thanks!” to the NATO declaration of solidarity, as it invoked article 5 for the first time in its history. Washington did not want a repeat of the NATO intervention in Kosovo, when the leaders of the participating NATO member states wanted to have a say in military procedures. The continued existence of NATO follows from the urge for survival among the NATO bureaucracy and the addiction among Europe’s political leaders to what they still consider an American security guarantee. And that is what has placed NATO on the Afghan stage; not as a mature alliance of responsible member states but as an occasional “coalition of the willing”. The result is that the European participants in the Afghan adventure have turned themselves into vassals of American policy. They run around as zombies in a vicious circle powered by the apparently decisive argument for remaining in Afghanistan: We are already there! Politicians and military leaders are caught in the horrible prospect that otherwise they will have to face the families of the dead soldiers with the message that, yes, they died for nothing.