By Roxana Tiron - 10/06/09 11:14 PM EDT
President Barack Obama is weighing a difficult decision to send more American troops to Afghanistan at a time when the Netherlands is preparing to pull its own soldiers from the war-torn country next year.
The Dutch military has been fighting in Afghanistan as part of a NATO coalition since 2002. Over the last several years, Dutch forces have been concentrated in the Uzurgan province, where they have garnered praise for making significant gains against the Taliban. Twenty-one Dutch soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan.
The Dutch parliament is currently debating troops’ participation in Afghanistan, potentially leaving a small window open to reconsider the decision taken two years ago.
Meanwhile, the Netherlands is trying to convince other countries, through NATO channels, to fill in and commit more troops. But the country also counts on the fact that its contributions so far will go a long way.
“I have the strong impression that our investment in the security and development of Afghanistan since 2001 — with significant military, diplomatic and civilian resources — is very well-recognized by our American counterparts,” Dutch Ambassador Renée Jones-Bos said in an e-mailed statement to The Hill. “But our bilateral relation goes much deeper and wider than just the Dutch presence in Afghanistan.”
Obama is facing pressure to respond to a reported request for up to 40,000 more American troops from Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top military commander in Afghanistan. But the Democrats who run Congress are skeptical of that need.
Analysts say how Obama handles the request will determine the reaction of NATO allies.
“When you are in Afghanistan, it is clear that the relationship with the United States is going to be affected by how the allies respond to the decision that President Obama makes,” said Evelyn Farkas, a senior fellow at the American Security Project who just returned from Afghanistan, where she served in a delegation as a trans-Atlantic opinion maker as part of NATO’s public diplomacy division.
“That is the feeling you get in Afghanistan and the feeling you get in Brussels [Belgium, where NATO is headquartered]. Right now, everyone is in a pause mode, but if the president decides to commit more American resources, the allies are not under the illusion that he won’t come to them for more.”
Obama admitted earlier this summer that “participation in the coalition in Afghanistan can be controversial in the Netherlands.” But Obama asked Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende this summer to reconsider his country’s military’s participation there after next year.
“As President Obama said, I hope that they would reconsider the decision,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the co-chairman of the Congressional Caucus of the Netherlands. Van Hollen, who is also the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, is of Dutch descent.
“The Dutch-American relationship is strong and I think it will survive the ups and downs along the way,” he said in an interview with The Hill.
Van Hollen, together with Dutch-born Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), the other founder of the caucus, introduced a resolution recognizing the 400-year relationship between the United States and the Netherlands. The House passed that resolution at the end of September and the Senate followed suit on Monday with a corresponding resolution offered by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Pat Roberts (R-Kan.).
The Netherlands marked the 400-year anniversary with a visible and rare public-relations campaign, mostly centered in New York City — once a 17th-century Dutch colonial settlement under the name New Amsterdam. Henry Hudson sailed a Dutch ship into what became New York Harbor and the Netherlands was the first country to recognize the flag of the newly independent American state in 1776.
Overall, the Netherlands spent $10 million on the celebrations. The Crown Prince Willem-Alexander and Princess Máxima, as well as the Dutch defense minister, foreign minister, foreign trade minister and minister for European affairs, all came to the celebrations. Two Dutch navy frigates came, as did a fleet of flat-bottom boats.
The 400-year celebration turned into one of the Netherlands’ biggest campaigns; the country does very little to publicly tout its contributions to the United States. The Dutch Embassy in Washington has appointed a congressional liaison, but otherwise does not have any firms lobbying on its behalf.
“Perhaps it’s not very Dutch to boast,” said Floris Van Hövell, the embassy’s counselor for public diplomacy. “We do the best we can do in Washington. We make sure that the people who need to know do know about it.”
The Netherlands is a nation of 17 million people and the third-largest investor in the U.S., with $167 billion, or 37 percent of the Dutch GDP. There are about 800 Dutch companies in the U.S. employing more than 350,000 Americans.
The Dutch commitment in Afghanistan and Iraq over the last eight years has played a significant role for the military cooperation between the two countries and has boosted the political relationship as well.
But with that commitment winding down and the pressure ramping up on the U.S. in Afghanistan, the political debates in both countries over the next several months likely will set the tone for the future.
Dutch officials hope that their country’s other contributions will carry the day. Among them is military help in Africa, drug-patrol missions in the Caribbean, participation in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program and a large missile defense exercise organized by the Dutch next September. Dutch politicians are also considering allowing some of the detainees from Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to be held in the Netherlands, after initially opposing such a move.