Afghanistan war: Dutch withdrawal, WikiLeaks don't deter main NATO allies

The Afghanistan war has not been popular in Paris, Berlin, or London. But neither the Dutch withdrawal nor WikiLeaks revelations appears to be a threshold issue for voters.

Dave de Vaal/Netherlands Ministry of Defence/Reuters
Dutch General Kees van den Heuvel (r.) and US Army Colonel James Creighton are seen during the transfer of authority from the Netherlands to the US and Australia in Tarin Kowt, Afghanistan, August 1.

Neither the official withdrawal of Dutch forces from Afghanistan on Aug. 1 nor the revelations by WikiLeaks on war operations appears yet to be a game-changer in Paris, Berlin, or London.

The Afghan war has been unpopular in all three places for several years. But the main policy of the main US NATO allies remains one of endurance with the hope of withdrawal as soon as a credible strategy is found.

Intense fighting this summer, combined with voluminous raw information on WikiLeaks, has been a spur to war skeptics in Europe, and has raised anew questions about the purpose of the war, its goals, and whether Afghanistan can become a credible political state.

The WikiLeaks documents, sometimes compared to the Pentagon Papers, were released by the Guardian newspaper in the UK and Der Spiegel in Germany.

The WikiLeaks material in Germany has joined a newly robust discussion about the war, one that had largely been missing until late last year, as the Afghan deployment was largely treated as "nation building" and not as a war.

Now, information showing US forces acting on “hit lists” given by the Bundeswehr, Germany's armed forces, and regular US and coalition missions in Bundeswehr zones that the German public assumed were not part of the conflict, has caused ire, anger, and opposition talking points for the Social Democrats.

But it is not being seen yet as a threshold issue for voters.

Another year for German mandate

“Targeted killings are problematic for the German public,” notes Helmut Kreft, an adviser to the Christian Democratic Union foreign policy team. But much of the German policymaking class involved in the war, he notes, agrees that the new US strategy has not had time to take hold.

“By the time everything gets into place it will be winter, and that will slow things down,” Mr. Kreft adds. “There is optimism for another year of the German mandate, though the majority is eroding.”

“I was surprised there was not more attention to the Dutch withdrawal,” says a German Green party consultant. “It’s not being discussed much. We now have a good critical debate. But I don’t hear anyone saying ‘withdraw soon.’ ”

British public focused on rising death toll

In Great Britain, all major parties prior to May's national elections ran on a platform to withdraw troops from Afghanistan as quickly as possible. New British Prime Minister David Cameron reiterated this position in June in Parliament.

Yet the Dutch withdrawal, planned on for two years and to be completed in December, is a minor story; WikiLeaks revelations are sharing space with a British media focus on the immediate and intense fighting in Helmand Province where UK forces are taking casualties. Some 327 British troops have died in the country, an increase from some 200 six months ago.

“The main question now is whether the war is worth our boys dying, and is there a plan or strategy?” says Gareth Price, an analyst at Chatham House, a think tank in London. “I don’t think anyone has actually read all of WikiLeaks, where there is so much information, and yet so little. Anyone paying attention knows the war is messy, despite official statements…. If anything, the leaks play into a public question of ‘Why are we there?’ Goals have shifted many times. First it was Al Qaeda. Then Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Then drugs and the Afghan economy. Now we are back to dealing with Al Qaeda and trying to talk with the Taliban.”

French media have covered the WikiLeaks and the Dutch withdrawal. But there’s been little major reaction on its effect on a war that the French public dislikes but accepts as a temporary necessary evil.

Desire for withdrawal linked to clear goal

One common theme in all three capitals is a desire for withdrawal following the accomplishment of some clear goal.

“The mood in Berlin is a withdrawal plan connected with realistic goals,” says the German political consultant. “What do we achieve before we withdraw?”

Mr. Price at Chatham House suggests similarly, “What you hear more frequently [in the UK] is ‘When we withdraw, what do we leave behind?' ”


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