NATO's future on the linePARIS The Dutch political class did not mean this to happen, but the parliamentary vote set for February on the Netherlands' participation in the NATO mission to Afghanistan has become a struggle over the character and future of NATO - and possibly of Afghanistan as well.
The immediate issue is whether the Netherlands' promised 1,100-soldier contribution to an expanded NATO mission will fight if it runs into Taliban forces, or will even go where it is likely to meet them.
The Dutch are headed for southern Afghanistan, which is not a quiet area. The American troops leaving, expecting to be replaced by the Dutch, have been conducting combat operations there. (And suicide bombings have begun in Kabul.)
Under heavy American pressure, NATO initially sent a contingent of 9,000 troops to the Kabul region to take over peace-support duties. These allowed American forces to move south to fight Taliban militants re-infiltrating Afghanistan, and go on searching for Qaeda leaders and "remnants" moving back and forth from Pakistan's largely inaccessible northwestern tribal territories.
Since 6,000 new NATO troops are needed to replace 4,000 American combat forces about to be withdrawn, the last few days have brought anxious urgings from the NATO secretary general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, that the Dutch parliamentarians approve the new deployment.
L. Paul Bremer, a former U.S. ambassador to The Hague (as well as former U.S. administrator in Iraq), added a warning, saying last Sunday that if the Netherlands parliament fails to approve the NATO mission, "That will be damaging for Dutch interests in the United States." This threat was described in the Netherlands as "bizarre."
NATO's initial agreement to go into Afghanistan was a controversial step on two counts. It took the alliance away from Europe for an "out-of-area" intervention, and it amounted to after-action support for the American invasion that overturned the Taliban government.
For Washington, NATO now exists as a stock of individual foreign military units of varying specialties, expected to contribute to the support of U.S. operations undertaken, it is argued, in the common interest.
Officially, the United States has high ambitions for NATO. The American ambassador to the alliance, Victoria Nuland, recently published an article that envisaged NATO action "all across our planet ... in the front line in confronting the 21st century."
She said that the debate over the Iraq invasion in 2003 had "inflicted a hard lesson," and that NATO should become the place in the future to discuss and debate all the problems touching on security, including those of the Middle East, Iran, North Korea, and China.
Discussion and debate are open to several definitions, but it is safe to assume that U.S. policy will continue to be decided in Washington, not in Brussels.
NATO support for the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan poses another question: How practical are these mixed contingents of national forces when each has its own mandates and national "caveats" concerning what it can and cannot do?
For all of them, including the American, force security is the priority. According to the BBC, the Spanish scarcely leave their compounds. The Germans won't let others in their helicopters. The Dutch, if they agree to go, won't get involved in security operations. Each contingent has its own idea about how to carry out the NATO mission.
All this is heavily loaded with national hypocrisies, caused by the split that has opened between American foreign policy under the Bush administration and the greater part of European public opinion, even in traditionally Atlanticist countries such as the Netherlands (and, of course, Germany).
NATO was established for Europe's defense against Russia. The effort to turn it into an adjunct of American global strategy is reasonable enough from Washington's point of view, and desirable in the eyes of many European Atlanticists, as it preserves their special links with Washington.
The trouble lies with public opinion. The Iraq war was unpalatable even for people in some of the countries whose governments initially committed troops to the coalition. Hence the Iraq coalition has slowly disintegrated.
The NATO operation in Afghanistan is widely believed in that country, and in the region, as the preliminary to complete American withdrawal. Iraq is more urgent, and the continuing but unsuccessful search for Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan generates a bad press in the United States.
Somebody needs to remain in Afghanistan during the next few years. After Soviet troops were withdrawn in 1989, the United States, which had supported the anti-Soviet forces, went home, leaving the country to the Taliban. This proved not to have been a good idea.
This time NATO is to take over. That at least seems the idea being tried out. Whether the Dutch realize it or not, the future of both NATO and Afghanistan may be what their Parliament really will be debating.