NATO Getting Jittery over Canada, Netherlands Leaving Afghanistan

On June 15, a Dutch army civil-affairs team set out to celebrate International Women's Day by visiting a girls' school in the city of Tarin Kowt, in the southern Afghan province of Uruzgan. It was the kind of task the Dutch army prefers: a quiet day's work with a positive message and a healthy dose of co-operation with Afghan civil authorities. Dutch authorities argue repeatedly that they will fight the Taliban if they must - but that they'd rather put the Islamist guerrilla movement out of business by appealing to ordinary Afghans' hearts and minds.

Sadly, on this particular day the Taliban didn't give them a choice. A car packed with explosives raced down an alley, slammed into a Dutch M-113 armoured personnel carrier, and detonated, killing the driver, 10 Afghan civilians, and mortally wounding Timo Smeehuyzen, a 20-year-old Dutch army private.

As an isolated incident it would have been bad enough, but the suicide bombing marked the launch of a concerted Taliban assault against the Dutch troops and Afghan army checkpoints in Uruzgan. The fight lasted for two days and centred in the town of Chura, near Tarin Kowt. It was extraordinarily fierce. One more Dutch soldier died, apparently from Dutch mortar fire. At least 30 Taliban soldiers died. Several Afghan civilians were also killed, their throats cut when they refused to join the Taliban against the Dutch army.

Weeks later, at the sprawling headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Brussels, much of the hallway gossip is about the Dutch firefight at Chura. The Netherlands is not known for being warlike. At Srebrenica in 1995, Dutch troops stood by, helpless, while Serbian forces killed thousands of Bosnian Muslim civilians. In the intervening decade, the Netherlands government has continued to cut military spending, just as Canadian governments did in the 1990s. NATO allies, including Canadians, have sometimes amused themselves with a scrap of soldiers' doggerel that pours scorn on the Dutch troops' fighting spirit: "Wooden shoes wouldn't shoot."

That's over now. "The Dutch didn't pick this fight," one NATO official told Maclean's. "The Taliban took it to them. And they got their knees cut off."

Like Canada's own ARMED FORCES, the Dutch have discovered in the sands of Afghanistan a measure of the warlike spirit they thought they had left behind. Or at least, their soldiers have. It's not at all clear that the populations of Canada or the Netherlands share that taste for the nastier elements of the soldier's work. Which leads us to the other topic of preoccupation among NATO planners: that the two most plucky middle powers in ISAF, the International Security Assistance Force, are preparing to rotate out of their posts in the south of Afghanistan. And that no other country will be willing or able to take our soldiers' place.

The United States and Great Britain have substantially larger troop deployments in Afghanistan, but their commitment to the mission seems unlikely to flag any time soon. Of the 41,000 ISAF troops throughout Afghanistan, about 14,750 are American, 6,500 British, 2,500 Canadian and 1,300 Dutch. Only Germany, Italy, Poland and Turkey have also fielded national contingents of more than 1,000 soldiers.

All of which puts on Canada and the Netherlands a particularly heavy burden. Persuading the two countries to stay in the south of Afghanistan - or finding replacements in the event either country decides to scale back its commitment - "will be the big issue for 2008, absolutely," a senior NATO official told Maclean's.

A diplomat from a smaller NATO member nation went further. "I frankly fear a negative domino effect. I fear the Dutch will want to leave. And then the Canadians will follow. And after that? We don't have a debate in my country yet, 'Why Afghanistan?', but who knows? This has become a test of cohesion."

In the Netherlands, the "Why Afghanistan?" debate is well advanced. Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende won parliamentary support for the mission into Uruzgan province in 2006, putting his country's soldiers not very far, in either distance or depth of hazard, from the Canadian Forces troops in Kandahar. That original mandate expires in August of 2008. And Balkenende has promised a parliamentary debate this autumn on what to do next.

While Dutch parliamentarians prepare for that debate, Dutch public support for the mission is evaporating. Polling by the Maurice de Hond firm shows that only 34 per cent of respondents favoured extending the mission in early July, down three points from a month earlier. The number calling outright for the mission to end in 2008 stood at 58 per cent, up seven points since June.

In many ways, without many people in either country noticing, the Dutch debate on Afghanistan has mirrored the Canadian debate. Balkenende, for instance, announced in 2006 that he would only take on the southern mission if he could count on the support of the largest opposition party, Dutch Labour. Canada's prime minister, Stephen HARPER, has begun to make a similar argument: he will only extend the mission past 2009 if there is a "political consensus" among parties to do so.

It's this similarity of rhetoric, and the one-two punch of Dutch and Canadian decisions that must be made within months of each other, that has NATO officials jittery. That and the distinct lack of hands shooting up whenever they ask who might like to relieve the battle-weary armies at the front lines of Afghanistan's most dangerous territory, the southern provinces.

Nobody from any country or the NATO command structure will name the recalcitrant countries for the record, but off the record everyone knows who they are: France, Germany, Spain, Italy, and perhaps Turkey and Greece. They have the big, sophisticated 21st-century armies that would come in handy when the job is to chase the Taliban into their last redoubts. None is in a mood to.

If there is a difference this year from last, it is in the reluctance of NATO officials to publicly call out the reluctant nations for criticism. NATO's top commanders tried naming and shaming last autumn, and it didn't go well. In the run-up to a NATO heads-of-government summit last November in Riga, Latvia, secretary-general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer publicly called for more troops in the south from nations that hadn't sent many, or any. And he was virulent in his criticism of "caveats" that permit some countries' forces to deploy, or to fight, only under limited circumstances.

The very strong consensus among NATO leaders since Riga is that public acrimony didn't do the alliance any good. It did get Poland to cough up another 1,000 soldiers, who were deployed in February. Elsewhere around the table, only hurt feelings. "Publicly getting up there and criticizing allies isn't helpful," a senior NATO official told Maclean's. "It's likelier than not going to convince those allies that, as they're not appreciated anyway, they might as well come home."

So at the next NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, in April of 2008, leaders of the alliance are bound and determined to come up with good news for a change.

They want Afghanistan and Pakistan co-operating better to reduce the Taliban's ability to retreat across the porous border into safe havens in Pakistan. They want "the Gorilla" - a high-ranking United Nations administrator with a mandate to coordinate what has so far been an incoherent jumble of civilian relief and reconstruction efforts - to be "out of his cage," i.e. on the job. They'd like measures in place to pool helicopters, flight crews and maintenance staff among nations, because even though the NATO nations have thousands of helicopters, they always manage to have a chronic shortage in operational areas.

And the NATO brass wants Canada and the Netherlands to either recommit to the hard work they've been doing, or to be well on the road to planning a seamless transition with replacement troops so the overall NATO commitment remains unbroken.

(While officials are very nervous about what will happen if Canada and the Netherlands want out of the south, they are adamant that both countries have earned the right to make that decision. If Canada were to scale back its commitment in 2009, that would be "a normal rotation period," the senior NATO official said.)

What NATO doesn't want, this time, is a public spat. "That would be the quickest route to lose Afghanistan," the senior official said.

But even though the allies are determined to stay nice, below the surface a good deal of tension remains. A French official showed up for an interview with Maclean's with a stack of supporting documents, a marked reluctance to let a reporter get a word in edgewise, and an urgent message: France has been consistent in its approach to Afghanistan since 2001. "We have done everything we said. And we have said everything we would not do."

This diplomat - who, like most other people Maclean's interviewed in Brussels for this story, would not speak for attribution to avoid offending the sensibilities of other allies - was simply relieved at the chance to make France's case. After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, "we did our job," the diplomat said. French pilots participated in bombing runs against Taliban targets. French soldiers went into the caves in the multinational, unsuccessful attempt to hunt down Osama bin Laden. When NATO took over command of the multinational force in Kabul, Afghanistan's capital, "we said okay."

When NATO extended its operations to the west, "we said, 'We're staying in Kabul,' the French diplomat said. When NATO pushed south, "we said, 'We're staying in Kabul.' We have always said, be careful in the south, and in the east, there's no rush. And the Americans and the Brits said, 'Come on, come on, let's go.' "

France has substantial military commitments in places that countries like Canada don't - Lebanon, Kosovo, the Ivory Coast. And like Germany, the French did consent, in Riga, to commit troops and aircraft to support other allies, in combat zones, in a combat emergency. James Appathurai, the Canadian-born official spokesman for NATO, said this has led to French Mirage fighters providing close-air support for Canadian combat troops.

"Obviously, obviously, if NATO troops found themselves somewhere like Custer at the Little Bighorn, or like Dien Bien Phu, outnumbered and facing a rout, of course we would send our troops," the French diplomat said. "But that's not what's happening. In each one of these confrontations - at Chura, in Operation Medusa [the most ferocious firefight Canadian troops have been in so far in Afghanistan] - NATO wins. Militarily, NATO is winning."

The question, the French diplomat said, is whether one battlefield victory after another is sufficient. Like just about everyone, including Canadians, Brits and Americans, France argues instead that civil reconstruction and a competent, indigenous Afghan administration offer the only road home for Western militaries. "The Russians, with 130,000 men, couldn't hold Afghanistan," the French diplomat said. "Do you really think 1,000 or 2,000 more troops today would make a difference?"

Appathurai, the NATO spokesman, agrees wholeheartedly with at least that much of the French pitch. Reconstruction must eventually take over from combat, whose goal has been to secure Afghan territory from Taliban rule or harrassment, he said. And eventually Afghan troops must take over from foreign troops in ensuring the nation's security.

"There's a hackneyed phrase the Taliban are supposed to use - 'You have the watches, but we have the time,' " Appathurai said, meaning that the Taliban are prepared to wait Western interlopers out and move in after our soldiers leave. "And that makes people nervous. Well, the answer to that is, the Afghan National Army lives there too."

By NATO's account, training of the Afghan army proceeds at a satisfying clip. Three years ago there was, for all intents and purposes, no such thing as an Afghan army; today it stands at 35,000 soldiers and it should double in size in another three years, Appathurai said.

Many Afghan units have teams of NATO advisers embedded within them in what are called Operational Mentor and Liaison Teams, or OMLTs (known as "omelets"). The Afghan army is fielding operational units faster than NATO can supply OMLTs to train them. "So while I can see a generations-long development effort, the military effort in Afghanistan has a finite end," Appathurai said. "And the finite end comes when the Afghan army can hold the line the way we've been holding the line."

The reporter interviewing Appathurai couldn't help pointing out that this sounds like the White House's line on Iraq for most of 2006: that the Americans would "stand down" when a coherent Iraqi army began to "stand up." And that hasn't been going well.

Appathurai grimaced. "I don't normally say this on the record, but I'll say it anyway. The problems in Iraq have had a very unfortunate effect on the perceptions of the Afghanistan conflict."

It's a shoddy comparison, he added. "There is no sectarian war in Afghanistan. There is no broad rejection of the international presence. There is a clear UN mandate to do what we're doing. So this analogy is simply wrong. But the timing has been very unfortunate and has a real effect on public opinion."

In the Dutch parliamentary debate over extending their mission, and the Canadian debate that must follow within several months afterwards, the extent of that effect will become clear. But at NATO headquarters, the United States is a concern for a second reason.

The international presence in Afghanistan began, near the end of 2001, under the command of a wounded and enraged United States. And it was only with the consent of the Americans that NATO was permitted to take over operational command of most foreign troops in Afghanistan in 2003. While Iraq had obviously, and at ever-escalating cost, replaced Afghanistan as the highest foreign-policy objective of the Bush White House, it still took a leap of faith to hand responsibility for the birthplace of the Taliban over to a multinational coalition with a lot of Europeans in it.

NATO makes a great show of affecting collegial decision-making among like-minded peers, but it is an open secret that since the end of the Cold War in 1989, the alliance has never seen action unless an American president pushed it in - in Kosovo and Serbia under Bill Clinton in 1999, and then in Afghanistan under George W. Bush after 2001.

Afghanistan, then, is a test for NATO, still, today. "If ever we couldn't be effective there," the senior NATO official told Maclean's, "the survival of the alliance wouldn't be threatened. But over time we would find ourselves doing the softer kinds of roles, pacifying the Balkans or doing these training missions."

So in a perverse way, if some combination of allies can't be found to spell off the Canadians and the Dutch in the most dangerous regions of a strategically vital country, NATO needn't worry. Because it would not be likely to get handed such an assignment again.

Maclean's August 6, 2007