NATO can't blink in Afghanistan

Will the Dutch again decline to move Europe forward as a unified group of responsible nations? Last year, voters in the Netherlands rejected the European Union's proposed constitution. Now Dutch lawmakers may disrupt NATO plans to expand international forces which it leads in Afghanistan.

The lawmakers are concerned that if they approve sending 1,200 more Dutch troops to Afghanistan, their soldiers will face serious danger.

That's because the Dutch reinforcements, along with more British, Canadian, and other soldiers, would be deployed to the volatile south, where violence is common and the need for combat far more likely than in Kabul and other areas where NATO forces act more as peacekeepers. Like the Dutch, many Europeans fear being dragged into war.

Blocking the deployment, however, would be a huge blow to the integrity of the NATO military alliance, which still wrestles over mission and resources since it completed its job as the cold-war defender of the West. A Dutch denial could be read as a sign that NATO is unwilling to face an era of new threats that lie beyond Europe's borders and that could require sacrifice of life.

A Netherlands "no" would send a signal of weakness to terrorists who still operate along the Afghan/Pakistan border. And it would let down Afghans, who expect NATO to fulfill its commitment to provide security for rebuilding this struggling democracy beset by warlords, opium, and poverty. Also, Washington would surely be displeased. It's counting on the NATO-led expansion - an increase from 9,000 to about 15,000 troops - to allow a US drawdown in Afghanistan of 2,500 troops this year.

It's astounding, really, that the case for the NATO expansion has to be argued at all. The world can disagree on Iraq, but Afghanistan? The training ground for 9/11, where Taliban fighters still prowl? Afghans just elected their first parliament. Surely, securing their future - and Europe's - is worth the risk of being attacked. (It will still be the US's job to rout out terrorists.)

Step-by-halting-step, NATO is inching out of its defense-only cold-war mind-set, awakening to challenges outside its immediate geography. It has nearly 20,000 peacekeepers in the Balkans, and its presence in Afghanistan is a historic forward deployment. A tangible acknowledgment of its potential global security role is a rapid response force of 17,000. Set to be fully deployable in October, this Ferrari would roar anywhere in the world to handle evacuations, disasters, and counterterrorism.

But will there be the political will to use such a force? The Netherlands debate shows the difficulty of getting public backing for a beefier NATO. Unemployment and welfare costs keep European defense budgets flat or declining. So, too, does a general discomfort with military power.

Adjusting to the political and strategic sea change since the cold war isn't easy. In democracies, leaders can't get ahead of their publics - unless they bring them along through convincing argument. That's the challenge facing Europe's leaders today. If they fail, expect NATO's Ferrari to stay parked in the garage, right next to the stalled constitution, and expect European leadership to be eroded.

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