After the Dutch, Who’s the Next to Leave Afghanistan?

If our European allies want to capture Barack Obama’s full attention, they could certainly do so by announcing en masse their intention to withdraw from Afghanistan by the coming July. Europe would suddenly loom large on Obama’s radar screen, triggering a flurry of diplomatic activity by the White House in a bid to prevent or at least whittle down the extent of the exodus. Obama would be in Madrid like a shot for this month’s EU-U.S. summit — from which he had previously begged off, citing commitments at home — and again for the NATO summit in April.

The Europeans’ justification for pulling out could start with the argument that Article V of the NATO Treaty, which considers an attack on one member state an attack on all the members, no longer applies to Afghanistan. Beyond that, the Obama administration’s unilateral deadline of July 2011 for beginning a drawdown from Afghanistan means that Europe is logically entitled to set its own.

But the underlying causes would of course be political: A war that once had broad public acceptance in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 is now dangerously unpopular. The German government, which fields the third-largest force in Afghanistan, is certainly not the only NATO member with a more-or-less secret contingency plan spelling out the circumstances when calling it quits would become a matter of political survival.

Regardless of national caveats on the rules of engagement, the departure of some 36,000 troops representing some 25 nations would leave northern and eastern Afghanistan bereft of virtually any effective allied presence. That would probably cause the collapse of the whole Afghan “adventure” (as Gerhard Schroeder once described the U.S.-led Iraq war).

The British probably would not sign on to such a plan — although if Prime Minister Gordon Brown could summon up the courage to lead the withdrawal he would in one stroke ensure his re-election and at the same time position Britain at the head of Europe for at least the next decade. Realistically, the initiative would be Franco-German driven. But fortunately for Obama and his commitment to Afghanistan, the Europeans have shown themselves incapable of such unified action.

So far. But now the Canadians are planning to pull out, and so are the Dutch, barring some unlikely miracle. Both are brave contingents that have seen their share of fighting and casualties. The gradual process of corrosion will continue even as Afghanistan’s elaborate dance of death drags on, despite the surge in U.S. forces.

The Obama administration lives with this reality. Defense Secretary Robert Gates hinted at Washington’s frustration in a recent speech: “The demilitarization of Europe — where large swathes of general public and the political class are averse to military force and the risks that go with it — has gone from a blessing in the 20th century to an impediment to achieving real security and lasting peace in the 21st century.”

And there will be little Obama can do to stop European support for the Afghanistan war from draining away. This is partly because his administration has lost the old Washington knack of making the Europeans feel important in order to achieve American objectives.

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