US Allies in Europe Begin to Pull Back

Last Friday five NATO governments made it known that they want American nuclear weapons removed from their territory. They include the Benelux three, together with Germany and Norway. The five reportedly will ask that all the European NATO governments endorse their position before a meeting in New York in May.

The Dutch foreign minister described this as an attempt to seize the opportunity provided by President Barack Obama’s recent call for a de-nuclearized world.

The latter is not likely to happen, but redundant or irrelevant (because designed for tactical use in land warfare) – and by some reports incompetently guarded – American nuclear munitions have no place in Europe today. The Cold War was over 20 years ago. The American administration’s attention should at least be caught by the claim that these weapons may not be properly secured. One of Washington’s obsessions is the threat of a stolen nuclear weapon in terrorist hands.

The political significance of this European action should be seen in connection with the fall on Feb. 20 of the Dutch government coalition of the Labor Party and two Christian parties, caused by disagreement over NATO’s request that the Dutch military contribution to the war in Afghanistan be extended beyond this year.

Any new government is expected to withdraw those soldiers, which have been part of the NATO Afghan coalition since 2006. The Dutch currently have 1,600 troops in Afghanistan and have lost 21 men.

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel continues to resist mounting popular pressure to withdraw German forces from Afghanistan. The Canadians have decided that they already have done more than their share, and have set withdrawal for 2011. The British, as always, have the biggest force in Afghanistan other than the American, but its political base at home is weak and weakening. The French have special forces in action in Afghanistan. But most of the NATO nations’ participation is symbolic, a response to the U.S. invocation in 2001 of Article 5 of the treaty, demanding support from all the members.

The U.S. devotes large sums of money to subsidizing the participation in Afghanistan of small NATO countries and publicizing the affair as a true coalition operation, but NATO-nation political and public support for the war is faint and grudging because few believe the mission is realistic. Creating democracy in Central Asia as a way of destroying al-Qaeda and ending terrorism is seen as another case of American wishful thinking.

The coalition offensive in the Marjah region that began Feb. 13 will give Americans themselves an answer as to whether the new Obama-era Petraeus-McChrystal strategy will work.

Circumstances are as favorable as can be expected, in that the Taliban have not made themselves popular in the area, and the NATO forces are bringing with them the full civilian panoply of NATO’s hearts-and-minds program, supposed to enable Afghan national army troops accompanying NATO to take over control from the alliance, and the Hamid Karzai government to "hold" the area against any return of the Taliban. They would do this by building up efficient and responsible government there, while NATO troops move along to the next region in need of being "seized" and pacified by U.S. Marines and their allies. Barack Obama is counting on them, but to this hardened observer it all seems too good to be true.

If the Marjah operation fails, the president in theory will be in a position to say that he has done his best with the strategy his commanders and their Pentagon superiors (and the Republican opposition) recommended. He can say it hasn’t worked, and the time has therefore come to begin that withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan that he promised in the same speech in which he announced the Petraeus-McChrystal "surge."

I say "in theory." In political practice, it is likely to prove impossible for the same reason it was impossible for Richard Nixon to withdraw American forces from Vietnam until Henry Kissinger had negotiated an agreement with Hanoi that both sides understood was a masquerade – which a majority of the American Congress, at that time, had the wit to understand. When the last American had clambered aboard the last helicopter from the Saigon embassy roof, President Gerald Ford had already declared the war "finished."

Barack Obama is likely to find that it isn’t easy to declare wars finished, especially when he has a Congress with more than its share of tinpot heroes who will foam at the mouth about "surrender" to terrorism. Obama is likely to find, as George Bush did before him, that when you expand your war, you have closed doors behind you.

(c) 2010 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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Author: William Pfaff

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