The US has its frontline war, Iraq. For Europeans and Canadians – America's NATO allies – it's Afghanistan. Just as Congress resumes debate on troops in Iraq, America's partners are doing the same for Afghanistan. Their decisions will test NATO unity and ideas about fighting global terrorism.
The next few months will be a critical period for "the forgotten war," as Afghanistan is sometimes called in the US. It's anything but forgotten in NATO countries that are losing soldiers to the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Pressure is building in their capitals for a pullout.
Within weeks, the Dutch parliament will debate whether to renew the deployment of combat troops when their mission ends next August. Canada's prime minister faces a vote of confidence in October, and much rests on Afghanistan. Opposition parties insist that Canada let its combat commitment lapse in early 2009 – or even demand a pullout now. In Germany, the mandate for redeployment expires in November, though a pullout is not expected because Germany's troops are in a training role.
And therein lies the great divide – combat or no? – between America and its allies, and increasingly, among NATO members. The annual Transatlantic Trends survey, published last week by the German Marshall Fund and other groups, reveals that about 70 percent of Americans support a combat role for their troops in Afghanistan, but only 30 percent of Europeans do. Instead, most Europeans want their troops to be used to help reconstruct Afghanistan. They prefer "soft" power – diplomacy and peacekeeping – to "hard" power.
The gap is especially significant because Afghanistan is NATO's first large-scale mission outside its own backyard. And since 2006, NATO has been in charge of security in Afghanistan.
Several NATO countries have refused a combat role, leaving the fighting to the Dutch, British, Canadians, and Americans. As casualties have risen, this core group has pleaded for other countries to share the burden – to no avail. The worry now is that if the Dutch go, the Canadians will follow – and NATO hasn't even yet reached its troop targets in Afghanistan.
Europe's political and military leaders have so far stood firm against calls for withdrawal, but now many consider the war effort lost and want an exit strategy, says Julianne Smith, a NATO expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
As in Iraq, America's allies in Afghanistan must consider the consequences of pulling out: the likely resurgence of the Taliban and state-supported terrorism.
Perhaps some of them believe the Yanks alone could prevent the Taliban from retaking power.
Perhaps they believe that if they pull out, they won't be terrorist targets (remember, though, last week's arrests of terrorist suspects in Germany and Denmark). Or maybe they're willing to accept a certain level of risk of attack.
Terrorism is still so new as a global threat that questions of traditional military deployment in foreign lands have yet to be answered in democracies.
The very nature of warfare is also changing, as the US has discovered in Iraq. The best mix of "soft" and "hard" power is still up for debate, both between and within NATO-member countries.