"If the European allies in NATO do not get to determine the mission on equal footing, they should leave the US to fight it alone," says Nanne Zwagerman in the following guest blog post. Nanne is a Dutchman living, working and studying in Berlin.
The war in Afghanistan is a controversial topic in many European countries. Where in Germany there is discussion on the extent to which German troops can support combat, the Netherlands has been actively fighting an increasingly intense insurgency in the southern province Uruzgan since 2006. Within three weeks, the Dutch government is supposed to decide upon continuing the mission beyond July 2008. It can be expected that it will be continued, though this will depend upon further commitment by other NATO countries.
In Uruzgan, the Dutch have tried to apply an 'ink blot' strategy, which is focused on weaning the local population from supporting the Taliban, de-escalation and gradual expansion of a zone of security within which reconstruction can take place. Success has been mixed as the Dutch have not managed to expand the zone of security much. They have found it difficult to cope with the Taliban, who do not hesitate to apply terror in the villages outside of Dutch control, killing and maiming even children that cooperate. Recently the Netherlands seems to be gradually abandoning the strategy, as it is focusing more on fighting the Taliban.Although the principles behind the Dutch strategy were promising, it was on the whole naive. Not because the tactics were too soft, not even necessarily because the Taliban has no scruples about the methods it uses. The reason is that the Dutch can't draw up a strategy in isolation. The Dutch force is but a small part of the international army in Afghanistan. Uruzgan is not an island. The Netherlands can't drive a wedge between the local population and the Taliban with 1,400 troops in Uruzgan when 20 to 30 thousand other troops are antagonising people of the same ethnic group in the surrounding provinces.
One of the problems in Afghanistan is that there is no plausible strategy for winning the war. The goal of NATO currently seems to be to enable the central government in Kabul to take control over the country. When the central government can control the territory, has eradicated the poppy industry and established a functioning free market, NATO forces will be able to leave, perhaps a small contingent in one or two bases that can be amically agreed on. The tactics to establish this overall strategic aim focus on fighting the Taliban in the south of Afghanistan.
This overall strategy, however, ignores the dominant local power structure in Afghanistan, where power often is truly local. It also ignores the fact that the current government is mainly made up of elements of the former 'northern alliance', which in turn was made up out of various smaller ethnic minorities. The Taliban are a movement among Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, the Pashtun. Hamid Karzai is also Pashtun, but he has lost his ability to unite by association with the northern alliance, and recently, the US and NATO.
There are 13 million Pashtun in Afghanistan, and a further 28 million live across the border in Pakistan. As William Lind has stated in his briefing 'out of the frying pan', a strategy that focuses on enforcing a government that has little perceived legitimacy among this dominant ethnic group, while fighting a movement that can count on considerable support among it, is a strategy for failure. If we are not to fight a perpetual war in Afghanistan, a different power sharing arrrangement will have to be found, which includes a fair amount of power for the Taliban.
Unfortunately, the US currently shows no signs that it is ready to move towards a realistic strategy. The US is the dominant force in the NATO operation in Afghanistan (ISAF), supplying the command, half the 35,000 troops, and it still has 8,000 troops operating outside ISAF. The US also shows no sign of readiness to let other countries have a say in the way it conducts its operations.
When members of a Dutch parliamentary delegation recently raised the issue of Guantanamo with the - Democratic! - chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, they were scolded to show some more gratitude for having been liberated from the nazis 62 years ago. What the US does with prisoners caught in Afghanistan is apparently none of the Dutch government's business. This is a continuation of the US approach to the war on terror in general, which is that 'the mission determines the coalition, the coalition does not determine the mission'.
If the European allies in NATO do not get to determine the mission on equal footing, they should leave the US to fight it alone.Nanne blogs irregularly on DJ Nozem and is a member of the European Tribune