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Dutch draw-down

February 23, 2010

A withdrawal of Dutch troops from Afghanistan would certainly increase the pressure on its allies to take their place. But it is unlikely to trigger a domino effect among other countries who have troops there.

Dutch soldiers in Afghanistan
It could be hard for NATO to find a replacement for Dutch troopsImage: AP

By the sheer number of troops, the Dutch deployment doesn't rank among top international contingents in Afghanistan. However, its force of 1,800 soldiers has not only been in charge of the Uruzgan province in the dangerous southern part of the country, but has generally been seen as doing an excellent job there.

So the planned Dutch pullout from Afghanistan as a consequence of the governmen crisis in The Hague will clearly have repercussions for NATO's military mission in the country at a time when most allies are already under pressure to justify their engagement at home. This has already led to worries about a possible domino effect in the sense that other countries might also feel forced to reconsider their committments to Afghanistan.

"It's true that the Afghanistan mission is very unpopular in many European countries, so it is definitely a cause for concern if the Dutch withdraw on account of the collapsed government," Eva Gross, who heads the EU foreign and security policy program at the Institute for European Studies at Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Belgium, told Deutsche Welle. "But to speak of a domino effect may be overstating the case."

Each country in Europe has its own dynamics and traditions, therefore Gross doesn't believe an automatic discussion about troop withdrawals in other EU states is likely.

German troop increase will go ahead

For Germany, where a parliamentary vote on the expansion of Berlin's Afghan mission is scheduled for later this week, the Dutch decision won't have an immediate effect either, argue experts. Public opinion in Germany can't be swayed much by the Dutch political crisis because a solid majority of Germans is already against the military engagement in Afghanistan, says Klaus-Peter Schoeppner, head of TNS Emnid, a major German polling and reseach firm.

While Germans are very skeptical about the Afghan misson, Schoeppner thinks that most of them can live with the exit scenario envisaged by the government. "So, I don't think that this topic will gain much traction in Germany," he told Deutsche Welle.

A German soldier stands guard in Afghanistan
Germany plans to send up to 850 additional troops to AfghanistanImage: AP

What's more, adds Schoeppner, Germans don't view the mission in Afghanistan as predominantly a military one. "We regard ourselves as the number one humanitarian nation," said Schoeppner. A fast withdrawal from Afghanistan would not only end Germany's military, but also its humanitarian responsibilities. Currently there is no indication that this is a likely option for the government, he added.

"I am fairly confindent that the increase of troops will go through in parliament, mainly because the political elites have been in favor of a continuation of the mandate," said Gross.

Exit strategies

While the Dutch withdrawal will not have any imminent effect on the committments of other allies, it will further increase the debate in many countries about timetables and exit strategies. "We have seen this in discussions already in Germany, Britain or the United States that the focus is now already much more on finding ways of withdrawing their troops from Afghanistan," said Gross.

That could make it hard for NATO to find a replacement for Dutch troops, if the new government in The Hague does in fact decide to withdraw its soldiers. Australia already publicly dismissed a possible leadership role in Uruzgan province and Canada has said it wants to pull out its troops at the end of next year.

Germany, which is currently in charge of the regional command in the north of Afghanistan, has repeatedly rejected a German engagement in the south and is unlikely to change that position. "I think it would be difficult for us to do more in Afghanistan, because others leave," said Schoeppner.

If no other countries are willing to take over the Dutch role in the South, the US might ultimately be forced to fulfill that task itself. As an alternative, American officials have aired a possible role for non-NATO troops in Afghanistan. But whether such an expansion of the Afghan mission is realistic and how it could work is still unclear.

Explaining the mission

At least for now then, the political turmoil over the future of Dutch troops in Afghanistan will merely increase the pressure on NATO planners to sketch out possible scenarios for a Dutch withdrawal and not lead to a domino effect in other countries. However, argue experts, since public sentiment is already very pessimistic about the Afghan mission, military events on the ground can always have a major impact on public opinion.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, and defense ministers at their summit in Bratislava last year
Politicians must better explain the rationale behind the Afghan mission, say expertsImage: AP

"In most countries a a rather large attack with loss of life would probably push the public to reject military engagement," said Gross. Since that is always possible, governments can only do one thing:

"They have to communicate the reasons why we are in Afghanistan much better and much more carefully. I think the Dutch withdrawal and the collapse of the government definitely highlights that the European public is unconvinced of the value of the Afghan mission and that European politicians have some explaining to do," she said.

Author: Michael Knigge
Editor: Rob Mudge