Any research project has to limit its scope--the realm of its coverage--to be clear, coherent, and not infinitely long. My work with Dave Auerswald on NATO's mission in Afghanistan is almost entirely focused on how countries control their operations in this distant multilateral effort. We have not sought to explain why countries chose to participate or focus that much attention on decisions to leave. But this may be hard to sustain the collapse of the cabinet government in the Netherlands yesterday over whether to extend or end their military effort in Afghanistan.
This event does not undermine our explanation of the patterns we see in the behavior on the ground in Afghanistan, but as one person in the audience of my presentation at the International Studies Association conference this week put it--isn't leaving the ultimate caveat? That is, our focus on variations in the restrictions placed upon troops in the effort should consider the very end of the continuum from flexibility to constraint--when troops are pulled out.
This event in the Netherlands is surprising to me insofar as I thought that the Dutch mission's departure this year was a foregone conclusion. It appears to be the case that one party sought to continue the effort, perhaps in light of the renewed US commitment and the pseudo-surge by NATO. But the two parties could not agree (which does provide more evidence that our basic approach to the issue is on target). My guess is that this decision to leave will stand.
And, of course, the Canadian decision to leave in 2011 is now put into stark relief. Prime Minister Stephen Harper can breathe a sigh of relief that he has decided to remove the Canadian Forces (pretty much all of them) in accordance with the parliamentary mandate passed in 2009, rather than re-visiting it or interpreting it to mean that a smaller force might stay behind (to staff the Provincial Reconstruction Team so that the civilian reconstruction types do not have to depend on Americans for a ride).
These decisions by the Dutch and Canadians are significant in their impact on alliance cohesion--will others follow? But with the influx of US troops, this is not as important as it would have been two years ago.
Still, it is regrettable as both contingents have been making a difference. The mission is a difficult one, but its outcome is not a foregone conclusion.