The Dutch Prepare To Withdraw From Afghanistan
The Dutch are probably set to leave Afghanistan in August. They’ve had a substantial force in the country since 2006, when they assumed primary responsibility for Uruzgan Province alongside a contingent of Australians. Although Uruzgan is fairly close to the geographic centre of Afghanistan, it is very much a part of Pashtunland, and accordingly has its share of Taliban activity. In other words, the Dutch and Australians have not been having an easy ride.
The Dutch were originally supposed to withdraw in 2008, but with no NATO troops volunteering to replace them they agreed to extend their deployment until August 2010. Until last Saturday, the Dutch government was a coalition of three parties: the Christian Democrats, the Labour Party and the Christian Union. Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende’s Christian Democrats were in favour of extending the deployment again, but Labour refused and walked out of the coalition, precipitating the government’s collapse.
Queen Beatrix has called an election for June 9, and the biggest gains are likely to go to the anti-immigration Freedom Party led by the firebrand politician Geert Wilders. I don’t know what Wilders thinks of his country’s Afghan deployment, but Balkenende at least now considers it likely that the troops will be returning home as scheduled. Their strength is around 2000 men and women, which might not seem like a particularly big number in the light of the recent American “surge” of 30,000-odd. However, their absence will certainly be felt, and forces will presumably need to be moved from elsewhere to plug the gap.
With our own troops scheduled to be withdrawn in 2011, we Canadians are hardly in a position to criticise the Dutch for choosing to abandon the field this summer. In any case, it’s hard to see continued engagement in Afghanistan as essential to Dutch interests. If the point of deploying there was to fight “terrorists” in Uruzgan to avoid having to fight them in Amsterdam and Rotterdam, withdrawing from Afghanistan and maintaining a reasonably vigilant attitude in the Netherlands would probably be a better way of dealing with this minor problem. If the point was to pursue altruistic projects such as building infrastructure and promoting democracy, the Dutch are certainly entitled to decide how much blood and treasure they’re willing to sacrifice for the welfare of the Afghan people – even if one ignores the disquieting truth that some proportion of the Afghan people just want the foreign troops to go away in any case. And for Canada the strategic calculation is essentially the same.
It’s perhaps not surprising that involvement in Afghanistan was never too popular with Dutch voters, and indeed seems to be increasingly unpopular with Canadians. Furthermore, the Dutch have apparently been somewhat at odds with American soldiers and diplomats over strategy in Uruzgan:
At the White House, President Obama was full of praise for the Dutch prime minister for the Netherlands’ exceptional military capacities and insight into local culture and politics. But the US sources I spoke to were scornful of such efforts. The Dutch claim that they brought safety to the still perilous Baluchi Valley by talking with all kinds of local leaders simply doesn’t go down well with the US forces. “That tribal stuff is the long way round. You need to win people over with power and money.”
Personally I suspect that “tribal stuff” is likely to be strategically essential in the long term, and that shortcuts involving heavy-handed use of “power and money” will create instability more often than they will resolve it. Furthermore, the Dutch are emphatic about their willingness to use force when necessary:
Brigadier General Marc van Uhm has a blunt response for critics who say Dutch troops have avoided fighting Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan’s Uruzgan province.
“This is bullshit,” he told AFP in an exclusive interview at “Kamp Holland” in the provincial capital Tirin Kot…
The record bears van Uhm out. Some 21 Dutch soldiers have been killed over the course of their deployment, and of course many more will have been wounded. In 2007 the Dutch fought and won an intense battle for control of the town of Chora, alongside Australian troops, Afghan police and the militia of a now-deceased local warlord called Rozi Khan. Rather than criticising the imminent Dutch withdrawal, I’m inclined to be grateful for their honourable contribution.
In fact, it’s perhaps a little ironic that we Canadians, while frequently complaining that our troops’ efforts in Afghanistan are underappreciated, pay so little attention to the parallel exploits of our various allies. Over the next few weeks I’ll try to write occasional pieces on what other nations are up to in Afghanistan, as a small step towards rectifying the situation.