The battle of Wobbly Knee: Dutch troops in Afghanistan

The Netherlands is talking about sending an additional 1,200 troops to Afghanistan’s Uruzgan province. The Dutch already have 540 people working in Afghanistan under the umbrella of the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) peace mission and another 674 under the umbrella of Operation Enduring Freedom. For other Dutch international deployments look here.

Why is it hard for the Dutch to finally make good on a promise their government made back on December 22nd 2005?

Well, for starters Afghanistan is becoming increasingly dangerous and with the spectre of the Srebrenica disaster still haunting the Dutch collective memory sending more troops in may be politically hazardous.

The prospect of potential failure in Afghanistan may very well have been one of the reasons why the Dutch government did not actually make a ‘promise’ but merely expressed their ‘intent’ to send more troops and left the final decision to Parliament. Not a smart move. D66 (Democrats 66, progressive liberal in the European sense) expressed its opposition against sending more troops as (translated quote):

After four years of battle the Americans have not succeeded in subduing terrorism in this province. The Netherlands won’t be able to succeed in that either with a reconstruction mission that is not even aimed at re-establishing security. But if there is no security, then there can be no reconstruction either. Therefore this mission – all good intentions notwithstanding – is doomed to fail.

With the Americans seemingly desperate to “rotate or adjust their deployment in Afghanistan” it should have come as no surprise that considerable pressure was mounted on The Netherlands to send more troops. Paul Bremer, in an interview with Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant, predicted that the United States would “punish” The Netherlands if it reneged on its intention to send more troops. Translated quote:

Consequences will then be inevitable, according to Bremer. “I suppose from time to time the American government and Congress will have to make decisions that influence Dutch economic interests. It would not be hard to foresee that in this case decisions will be made that are not in the interest of the Dutch.”

According to Bremer there is a divergence of opinions between the US and large parts of Europe on the question of how dangerous Muslim extremism is. “What many Europeans do not understand is that September 11th was an earthquake to almost every American. Most Americans realize they are living in a very dangerous world. Europeans much less so.”

In today’s Elsevier magazine Kurt Volker, the US diplomat to The Netherlands, stated that Bremer, as a civilian, does not speak for the US administration and that “He is just promoting a book that he wrote.” In any case the, now implied, threats did not go down well with a number of Dutch people who felt them to be a threat to their sovereignty. The whole affair does shed some light on how decisions are being made on an international level. In my opinion all this dilly-dallying of the Dutch before sending troops is not so much an example of democracy in action (discussing the pros and cons) as it is about unsteadiness in decision making. And that cannot be good for the proper execution of a mission:

“Occasionally one wonders if some governments think sending forces to Afghanistan is the equivalent of a parade down The Mall or down the Champs-Elysees,” he said.

“There is always the complaint by the Afghans that we are perhaps a little bit too passive and not willing to be pro-active,” Mr Vendrell said. “This perception would be strengthened if the Netherlands found it impossible to send forces to the south.”

Either you do it or you do not. I would not want to see a second Srebrenica in Afghanistan.
Editorial comment: The decision to send troops to Afghanistan has not been made yet, therefore I needed to edit the original version of this post.

13 thoughts on “The battle of Wobbly Knee: Dutch troops in Afghanistan

  1. “The prospect of potential failure in Afghanistan may very well have been one..”

    You raise a tremendously important point here. In the short term there is probably little risk involved, but in the longer term there are now a hell of a lot of wild cards in the air.

    Let’s move back a bit. I think to understand what may happen next you need to look at Iraq , and the strategic outcomes.

    The big victor I think is Iran (and a secondary victor is Russia, since Russia can leverage its friendship with Iran, and has general room for more mischief).

    So Iran is going to get back what it lost (or might have won) in the war it had with Iraq: huge influence over the southern part of the old Iraq.

    This throws everything in the air, and basically I can see two main alliances being strengthened, the Sunni Arab one, and the Wahabite one.

    The former is likely to bring together the old Baath people in the Republic of Tikrit with people in Syria, Jordan and Egypt. I think Dick Cheney has been in Egypt talking about exactly this.

    On the other front, the old axis of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Pashtun is likely to revive itself. Events in Pakistan in recent days seem to have been significant. You have to bear in mind that Pakistan is pre-occupied about its Northern frontier, and possible attritition from Iran and Russia (who also seem to be traditional enemies).

    This may be part of the logic of Karzai’s recent offer to start talking to Mohammed Omar.

    Now you see where all this is leading. Just how stable a place is Afghanistan going to be five to ten years from now?

    I am only painting one possible scenario, there may well of course be others. The thing is we just don’t know, because we don’t know what the end of the road will look like in Iraq. So working back from this ignorance it isn’t hard to see the problems they are having deciding.

  2. On the Russia causing mischief issue, this is going to be typical of the very minimum we can expect:

    However, previous EU predictions that the IAEA board would send the Iran dossier to the council as soon as early next month were “looking a bit sick,” a top EU diplomat said.

    The diplomat, who asked not to be identified, said Russia wants the IAEA to inform the council about the Iran issue, but in some way that stops short of a formal referral.

  3. Maybe because that´s a lot of soldiers?

    If my Google search was right the Dutch army consists of about 22,000 soldiers.
    Add the 1,200 to the already deployed 1,200 soldiers and you´ve got 10 % of the Dutch army deployed in Afghanistan alone. Plus the ones deployed in the Balkans.

    For comparison, the British army consists of around 100,000 soldiers.
    Of these, around 9,000 are deployed in Iraq and 650 in Afghanistan. Roughly 10% again.

    Given the small size of the Dutch army and that the British army probably is better equipped and trained for international missions, the Dutch are already doing a lot IMO.

    It looks more like a government promising more than it could deliver.

  4. Detlef is right: The best trained and equipped Dutch military (commandos, marines, 542 of them), are already engaged in Afghanistan with the US operation “Enduring Freedom”. What General Berlijn, the Dutch army’s Commandant in chief, has to offer for the Uruzgan mission, are badly trained “airlifted intervention brigade” troops, the same that were engaged in 1995 in Srebrenica, and who made such a shameful show there.
    The ambition to have the best of two worlds, i.e.: being a core EU-member AND staying a pet of the Americans, has once again carried away the Dutch Government.
    Initial hesitations about this mission with the Minister of Defense and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Relations, were fed by an exceptional critical report of the Dutch Army Secret Service about conditions in Uruzgan (November 2005). Foreign Minister Bot (Christian Democrat, the leading Government Coalition party), prior to Minister Condoleezza Rice’s visit to Europe in the first days of December, asked even, that Guantanamo and CIA torture prisons in Europe be closed, before any Dutch troops could go to Afghanistan.
    Rice’s contact with the European allies at NATO headquarters on December 6, changed apparently very much: Suddenly, Bot and his CDA were in favour of this mission, and showed full confidence in the “no-torture” affirmations of the Americans.
    What happened?
    My conjecture is this: Washington Neoconservatives, the “pure” ones, do not want NATO to be a part of the Afghanistan campaign. The new Pentagon doctrine is: “The mission defines the coalition”. European NATO-partners, aspiring to position themselves as equal partners and co-targets of terrorism, are not welcome. Vance Serchuk, a research fellow of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) on ‘post-conflict reconstruction in Afghanistan and Iraq’, published an AEI ‘short publication’ on January 9, 2006. It is called “Dutch Retreat?” (a pun on ‘Dutch Treat’, you’ll understand).
    To him, the farcical Dutch hesitations and skittiness, come as a welcome occasion, to argue again, that the US should opt out completely from alliance-based coalitions. Why not engage the “efficient” Turks in stead? The paper was also published in The Weekly Standard (9-16 January, p 27 sqq). The WS is the Washington Neocons’ agitprop weekly.
    It seems evident, that the American Neoconservatives (ab)use the Dutch as their “tête de Turc”, in order to attack indirectly president Bush and his Secretary of State Rice. I think that that is, why a normally reserved diplomat like Paul Bremer III went into so undiplomatic a statement recently. Bremer is a State Dept man. He and his friends need desperately the Dutch beating about the Bush to stop.
    Kurt Volker, State Department assistant secretary visiting The Hague these days, disavowed Bremer today (18/01/06, source: NRC-Handelsblad, p. 1), saying that he “has no official status” and that he was “only promoting his book” (about his quarrels with the Pentagon as American vice-roy of Iraq 2003-2004, HR). But Volker was not ambiguous about what is being expected from the Dutch in Afghanistan: There has to be a “synergy” between “Enduring Freedom” and the Dutch IAF mission. The Dutch cannot look another way, when the Americans signal a “terrorist” movement in their area.
    I suspect, that the Dutch Foreign Office establishment, encouraged by the British, have understood what is at stake on a diplomatic level and have succumbed to the idea (I think: the illusion) that they may indirectly get an opening with president Bush. “I help you out; what will you do for me now?”
    Probable victims of this illusionist diplomatic play will be the Dutch military sent to Afghanistan. For what the Dutch ask from their allies, is fundamentally contradictory: a. “Protect us, so that we will not be left on our own, like in Srebrenica!” and b. “Leave us alone. We are on a humanitarian mission. It would be harmed, if we were assiociated with you!”
    Whatever the Dutch Parliament (who were not allowed to see the November paper of the Army Secret Service, same source, HR) will decide: They will get a “Dutch Treat” in return…

  5. D66 has a name to hold up with respect to keeping their stand as they always fold. If they do not fold, which i somehow expect, than you should read this as proof that the other Dutch parties also don’t want to go the Afganistan

  6. @Charly: I do not expect a folding by D’66 either. They need not. They are doing the same show as Jaap de Hoop Scheffer (now: NATO General Secretary, then: parliamentary leader of the then oppositional CDA) did in respect to the potentially dangerous deployment of Dutch military for the UN in the border region between Eritrea and Ethiopia: saying “no”, hoping to gain some votes from outside their customary clientele.
    The big oppositional social-democrat party PvdA is expected to go along with Government under some conditions that are negotiated over at this moment. That would provide an overwhelming parliamentary majority in favour of the mission.

  7. The Dutch should insist that any muslim extremists that they capture in Afghanistan be brought to the Hague rather than Gitmo or some other torture zone the US has opened up around the world.

  8. @Richard K: The arrangements about people taken prisoner by the Dutch in Afghanistan, are:
    1. Dutch military embedded in “Enduring Freedom”, may hold them 3 days before handing them over to the Americans, under the condition that they will not receive capital punishment.
    2. Dutch troops that take prisoners during IAF missions, will hand them over to the Afghan Government, under the same condition.
    I think, that, in order to get the USA to accept a The Hague International Criminal Court role, an EU initiative would be needed.

  9. Especially as they are unlikely to be accused of war crimes, the international crime of aggression, or crimes against humanity, and hence aren’t within the ICC’s remit. More likely they would be either POWs or criminals in Afghan law.

    Re: Srebrenica. I can’t see the read-across here. Are they really worried that they’ll end up protecting a bunch of civilians under a mandate that doesn’t let them open fire? Certainly ISAF has full Chapter VII authorisation, i.e. a shoot-first ROE.

  10. “Re: Srebrenica. I can’t see the read-across here. Are they really worried that they’ll end up protecting a bunch of civilians under a mandate that doesn’t let them open fire?”

    It may only be a part of the issue, but Srebrenica could also be seen as general unpreparedness for a mission resulting in failure. Not necessarily ‘technical’ failure, given the lack of mandate at the time of Srebrenica, but a failure to justify Dutch military presence in a war zone.

    If the Dutch decide to send troops, they should provide them with adequate backing, both politically and materially. No more window-dressing and no more doubts. If you are going to do something, make sure you do it as well as possible. That is a lesson taken from Srebrenica. At least, that is what I think.

  11. As I’m sure you’re aware, I doubt the British contribution is getting full material and political backing, let alone a clear aim..

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