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NATO allies should share the burden


Netherlands Prime Minister Balkenende is “deeply shocked” by the recent deaths of two more Dutch soldiers in Afghanistan. Though it is difficult, even for a Prime minister, to find the right words at such a tragic event, one can only be shocked if something is a surprise, which - sadly - another Dutch death in Afghanistan is not.

Though the government first tried to sell the Netherlands mission in the dangerous southern province of Uruzgan as a reconstruction mission, it was clear to anyone who wanted to hear the facts that it was to be a fighting mission. The power point presentations – with pictures of girls reading in bright new schools - did however manage to mobilize a naïve parliamentary majority for approval. The parties did demand that after two years another NATO ally would take over. After all, when a group of allies decide that securing Afghanistan is crucial to their safety, it makes sense to share the burden.

Two years of searching for a successor made it clear that - with the exception of a handful of fresh Czechs, Slovaks and Ghurka’s and the continuing Americans and Canadians - the other allies would stay in the safer provinces. Under extreme pressure from the NATO Secretary-General (who just happens to be a party friend who owes his job to Dutch Prime Minister Balkenende) and the US, the Dutch recently agreed to extend the mission until 2010.

Again there is a firm commitment that that is really the final date. Not extending the mission would have been the same as admitting a mistake. And that is something politicians – from Bush to Hillary - will avoid at any cost.

I am in favour of fighting warlords and building schools, but I am against masquerading a fighting mission in Uruzgan as a reconstruction project. But now that the extension is a fact, there is still one thing that politicians should be demanding before any troops are committed: the costs, both in terms of danger and finance, should be shared out equally between the allies.

It is not acceptable for NATO members to agree on a common military target and then bail out when the Secretary General comes around with his cap in hand.

And if you are not willing or able to commit troops to dangerous fighting areas, then at least you should commit funds. Those NATO allies that have either very few troops in Afghanistan or are “camping and picnicking” (as one Dutch soldier called it) in the safer areas, should pay up. The costs of the Dutch mission, first estimated at EUR 340 million have now already been estimated at EUR 580 million (USD 860 million).

Many Dutch are starting to wonder why they should shoulder the risks, as well as the costs. Naturally the cost of fighting Taliban and warlords in the south will be costlier than digging wells in the north.

So let’s share it out equally. When NATO agrees on a mission it should follow that all costs will be evenly distributed. This will make it easier to find and maintain public support in nations whose men and women risk their lives. It may also add an extra element of reflection in the decision to launch a mission; after all you’ll have to put your money where your mouth was. And some additional reflection is always a good thing when becoming involved in armed conflicts.