The Dutch Pull Out of Afghanistan

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As the old C-130 Hercules transport plane took off from Tarin Kowt airfield in Uruzgan, I glimpsed a last view of the province that back in 2001 had witnessed the first Pashtun rebellion against the Taliban. This rugged airstrip was an unlikely place to make history, but it was the same strip that had been built by U.S. Special Forces to fly Hamid Karzai to Kabul in 2002, where a Loya Jirga was awaiting to anoint him president of Afghanistan. I spent only two days in the Forward Operating Base "Kamp Holland" in Uruzgan in 2008, but reading the reports about the Dutch withdrawal from Afghanistan on August 1 brought back memories.

The Dutch deployment in Afghanistan was primarily about solidarity with the United States after 9/11, or so a Dutch field commander told me. But there was something more about this mission for the Netherlands than just being a good ally. The horrors of Srebrenica - where Dutch peacekeepers had had to stand and watch helplessly while Bosnian Serb militias led off the Muslim refugees they had been guarding - left a long-lasting impression on Dutch society and its military. This time, the officer told me, the Dutch were better prepared, both politically and militarily. I was impressed by the smooth cooperation between the military and the civilian heads of the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), who not only worked closer together than administrators I had seen in other parts of Afghanistan, but even shared the same office and made decisions together. And despite the Provincial Reconstruction Team's emphasis on political outreach to Afghan stakeholders, the presence of Apache attack helicopters and German-made artillery left no doubt about the willingness to use force if necessary.
Five years, 40 dead, and 140 wounded later, the Dutch have left Afghanistan. It is difficult to blame them for this decision. As in almost every European country today, public opinion in the Netherlands has turned heavily against the war, even resulting in the collapse of a coalition government. For a military so small - the Dutch have only about 46,000 active troops - deploying 1,900 soldiers over a period of five years was a major effort. At the same time, it is no secret that almost everybody else - except, one must assume, the Taliban - would have liked the Dutch to have stayed longer. The Netherlands should regard this as a well-earned compliment.

The withdrawal comes at a sensitive moment, with growing western casualties and setbacks in military operations across Afghanistan. The implementation of a new counterinsurgency strategy is proving more difficult than expected, and clearly requires time. But more and more observers doubt that the countries contributing to NATO will have the strategic patience to make success possible. Already there are worries about a domino effect of the Dutch decision possibly causing other NATO allies to follow suit in withdrawing. Indeed, the Canadians could well be next in line, as might the Poles. The new British government wants to withdraw its troops by 2014. The recent WikiLeaks disclosure is likely to further decrease public support for the Afghanistan effort in Europe and the United States.

Yet we should be careful with domino theories, as such predictions have rarely proved true. President Obama has reportedly put Gordon Goldstein's outstanding book Lessons in Disaster - about former national security adviser McGeorge Bundy, among the best-known proponents of the domino theory - on the must-read list of his national security staff. Let's just hope that the domino theory will be proven wrong again.

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