In any case it is unfortunate. Regarding to Dutch troops in Afghanistan Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende said: If nothing else will take its place, then it ends. And the end is near, August 2010.
The support of the Afghan mission is decreasing among the public in many countries. And of course the public means voters and it means politicians are at least trying to find the way have to react on this. Would you say it creates a potential problem for the Afghan mission?
Djörn Eversteijn, Dutch security and international affairs analyst
In general terms: I would say that Afghanistan is not the first or the last instance, not is it the only instance in which domestic policy considerations threaten a coherent foreign policy programme. In this regard, I would say that domestic considerations – however understandable – might indeed be damaging for a nation’s foreign policy agenda.
Indeed support amongst the general public in various countries contributing to the ISAF-mission in Afghanistan has decreased, although I would say that the recent shift in the American strategy for Afghanistan has generated a significant increase in political support from the various NATO-member states. This is only underlined by the recent pledge to send a significant amount of extra European troops to Afghanistan. Despite this political pledge to increase the European troop levels in Afghanistan, I think that the mission remains fairly unpopular to the majority of the general public in Europe.
Unclear or halfhearted statements on a continued presence, and the number of troop levels in Afghanistan by any country – whether or not made to sustain or gain any level of public domestic support – is likely to produce negative results for the entire effort the international community is pulling off in Afghanistan. It produces not only weariness amongst the Afghan population regarding their protection and security, but it also provides a signal to the Taliban and several other alligned Islamic fundamentalist elements opposing the Karzai regime and the ISAF forces’ presence, that their resistance is indeed effective and might serve its political purpose. Both effects are not beneficial for the effectiveness of the operation in Afghanistan and may indeed hamper the international effort to stabilise and reconstruct the country.
Péter Marton, Assistant Research Fellow, Corvinus University of Budapest
This turn in Dutch domestic politics is certainly regrettable, on the basis of what transpires so far. What is being signalled by it to a “public” or “audience” that does not actually stop at the Netherlands’ borders is out of touch with the dynamically shaping reality in Afghanistan, and does not even conform to the nature of earlier behind-the-scenes talks within the Dutch government regarding its plans for a future role in Afghanistan. All sorts of possibilities regarding an extended military role (beyond the otherwise continuing deployment of Dutch F-16s) have been explored, and for a while, at least for outsiders, a complete pull-out of troops did not seem to be on the table as a practical option. That now it is disappointing. No doubt other countries with publics reluctant to retain a military presence in Afghanistan will take notice. Moreover, the news of this crisis in Dutch domestic politics comes just when there is a reasonable chance to expect some changes to insurgent leaders’ calculus, given increased troop numbers in southern Afghanistan, operations, both ongoing (in Marjah) and upcoming (in Kandahar and elsewhere), and given the arrests in Pakistan of a number of Taliban figures (of varying calibre, from commander Mullah Baradar to shadow governors of Kunduz and Baghlan provinces). Thus a development like this may be unfortunate even as far as the bigger picture is concerned. The reason I still wouldn’t like to go into speculating over whether other governments would react to this in a negative way, endangering the integrity of the coalition, is just this in fact: the widespread realisation that the stakes now are as high as they ever were. That is felt across the board, by most of the relevant stakeholders.
Paul Dixon, Reader, Politics and International Studies, Kingston University
Yes, you’re right elected governments have to be very careful about the impact of their policies on domestic public opinion. The US’s ‘Vietnam syndrome’ is a well-known example of the concerns of political elites about the impact of the deaths of American soldiers on domestic public opinion and resolve to fight foreign wars. In the run up to the invasion of Iraq, the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, was very concerned at the British public’s scepticism about the war and so he persuaded President George Bush to try and get the UN to pass a resolution supporting the invasion. The sensitivity of NATO public opinion to the deaths of their soldiers in Afghanistan has probably increased the desire of the politicians to train Afghan troops and police so that they can take on more of the burden of the counterinsurgency.
Federico Bordonaro, Professor of Geopolitics at COESPU
I think that what happened in the Netherlands is very typical for Europe nowadays, but particularly for Western Europe.
Western European parties and public opinion are split when it comes to war. Europe suffers from a “military fatigue” since the 1940s, for the very well know historical-political reasons, but such fatigue has been made worse by an acute demographic crisis. The decline of births means that families fear war more than ever, since they risk losing their only child. The convergence of historical memories (Nazism and the destructive world wars), demographic decline and economic crisis makes it very difficult for Europeans to accept an active military engagement, especially when it proves long and difficult. Thus, it is very much possible to have internally divided governing coalitions, like in the Netherlands, that can collapse over mission (re)financing.
What implications does such reality have for NATO and for the Afghan mission? It surely does have important consequences. The U.S. cannot be sure that EU allies will agree to any surge or sustained operations in the near future. EU countries want to keep NATO alive mainly to keep the Americans in, and to have a pretext to avoid large military procurements and defense spending. And this is true even when Europeans complain about America’s alleged “militarism”….
NATO risks to struggle with a lack of personnel in the next few years, and as a consequence, it will risk overstretch and loss of prestige….
Things may change substantially in, say, 10-15 years, but as the 2010s are concerned, this is what I see coming.
Nils de Mooij, Fellow, Clingendael Institute (The Netherlands Institute for International Relations)
You will have had the opportunity by now to read about the fall of the Dutch cabinet over the question of whether or not to extend the mission in the Uruzgan province. This was due to tensions between the two major government parties at the time (Christian Democrats and Labour) which had its roots in struggle over other issues as well. Plus, it’s election time here atm (local elections) which didn’t help.
Still, if there had been strong support for the ISAF mission amongst Dutch voters this crisis would not have happened.
Whether or not the Dutch withdrawal will create problems for ISAF as a whole I find hard to answer. You have to keep in mind Dutch forces have been involved in Afghanistan for quite some time and the Dutch commitment was quite strong in relative terms, that is to say, looking at the size and capabilities of the Neths. This meant that Dutch forces and defence budgets were already getting a bit ‘stretched’. This is also why a deadline for an end to a leading role in the mission in 2010 *had already been agreed upon*. The cabinet fell over whether or not to (partly) overturn this, or what other solid participation, possibly in the same province, to take.
So in principle this was not tied only to any lack of popular support, although again the political math would have been very different if there had been strong support for the mission (and the crisis would not have played out like this).
Now in general terms, yes, war weariness will be a factor. Karzai’s recent corrupt ‘election’ doesn’t help there. People have already started wondering why we’re really involved there; ‘surely not to support a corrupt president?’ Politicians aren’t blind to this, keep in mind Obama too wants out of there, and has even pretty much stated when. The question of course is, (when) will the ANA be ready to take over from ISAF, and will it really be possible to create a situation where you can be sure that Afghanistan won’t be a safe haven from which to export terrorism again?
Much now depends upon the succes of the ‘surge’ and the new campaign that was recently started, and in the longer run, in how the ANA is shaping up. Also see a possible – possible – new cooperative role for the ISI (Pakistani intelligence) in the captures of top Taliban commanders. Full ISI cooperation would really be huge, though I don’t think we’re there yet, or even that it’s really clear that is what is at the root of these recent captures. But it’s a reason to be somewhat hopeful.
There are a lot of non-US troops out there fighting in ISAF, and if all of them would start withdrawing due to lack of popular support, this would really hurt the mission, not just because the US would need to start sending even more troops (which it definitely could), but also because it would be less familiar with local power structures etc than the troops that are now involved. I.e. they may have built up ‘local (or provincial) expertise’, which would be lost if they withdraw.
Filed under: Afghanistan, Asia, Europe, Global Politics, Military, Politics, Security Tagged: | Afghanistan, Djörn Eversteijn, Federico Bordonaro, ISAF, Jan Peter Balkenende, NATO, Netherland, Nils de Mooij, Paul Dixon, Péter Marton, Security policy, Taliban