Thursday, January 12, 2006

Should the Dutch go to southern Afghanistan?

A new hot potato has emerged on the Dutch political scene. It was already brewing late last year when the Dutch cabinet discussed a decision to dispatch 1200 troops to southern Afghanistan, in support of an essentially American led peace enforcement operation.

Given some strong reservations within the coalition, the cabinet moved to let the ultimate decision be taken by Parliament. Although the free liberals are the main dissident party at this point, none of the other coalition partners from the outset wholeheartedly supported this mission.

The Netherlands have already contributed to peace keeping efforts in the country, but these efforts have so far been of a restricted nature and, more importantly, have been directed by NATO rather than the American forces.

In the southern part of Afghanistan, where operations thus far have been solely directed by American troops, there is noted activity of militant Talibans. There is a greater possibility in this region that Dutch troops, in the event they get involved, will have o pull their trigger.

Some people say that the Dutch reluctance in this case is based on our fear of actual combat risk. I have been given to understand that this is not the reason for our hesitation. Most people understand that such risk is part and parcel of having a Defense outfit to start with.

An important factor is the trauma of previous engagements. In Sebrenica, more than ten years ago, we took the hard lesson of an embarrassing involvement (i.e. by remaining totally passive) in genocide, most of all because there was a total lack of authority-in-situ and of support (from the NATO command) to allow us intervene. We do not want to get into an other Sebrenica.

Secondly, there is strong hesitance to – continue to – simply follow a US-lead situation. It’s like little Hans putting his finger in the dike and the water still running through. The question here – politically – is whether Holland will continue to support the foreign endeavors of the Bush administration that are seen by many as a flagrant failure. Do we wish to look foolish and run a serious risk of having caskets instead of living bodies arrive at our airports?

Most certainly, if the Bush administration would shrug at the Dutch, and say (what they seem to have said already), well, if you don’t help us here, this will damage your interests in the US, then that’ll be the final B(ush)-word. We may be a midget in military terms, but in economic terms, the Dutch are still – relatively speaking – giants. So, Washington better be a little more understanding and helpful.

The Dutch dilemmas furthermore do not stand in isolation. They are shared in other European countries. They only illustrate the underlying rift between Europeans and Americans. They are perhaps in part caused by a lack of European unity – particularly in matters of international security - but most certainly they are a result, too, of the prevailing egotist attitudes of the Bush hawks.

In the meantime, at the level op Dutch politics, the issue has become a matter of prestige for the free liberals: they will find it extremely difficult to turn around and support the position of their coalition partners. Evidently this has little to do with the merits of the case. Politically, it should be far preferred that a decision is reached which can draw the support of all coalition partners, rather than that the cabinet will need the support of the main opposition party, the Social Democrats. But this is a question to be resolved in our own house, so to speak.

Finally, other than Irak, Afghanistan is more truly a case for the international community. Americans so far have done most of the dirty work there, and allowed NATO partners to do the peace-keeping. We are a vehement NATO supporter. A Dutchman is its Secretary-General now. Dutch government parties would prefer close allegiance in that context, but we cannot pledge loyalty to it at any price. This is what makes it a complicated question. There is a lot of credibility at stake. I agree with William Pfaff in today’s IHT: perhaps even the future of the NATO is in the balance too. Even more so, it cannot be simply the Dutch to push this balance in the right direction.
Note, February 2: The Dutch parliament, in large majority, decided to back the governments proposal for the mission to Afghanistan. The social democrat opposition saved the day. The free liberals decided not to support the mission, but they will not block the cabinet's ultimate decision. A face saving exercize for many, a wise outcome for all.


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