How Afghanistan led to war in The Hague

12th January 2006, Comments 0 comments

If Dutch troops go to Afghanistan, junior coalition party D66 may drag its ministers out of the Dutch government, causing it to collapse. We examine the latest political poker game in The Hague.

The long-running indecision about dispatching 1,200 troops to the south of Afghanistan is turning into a political poker game, with the fate of the Dutch government at stake. All sides seem prepared to let the crisis go down to the wire and no one is about to fold.

The troops may bring down the Dutch coalition rather than prop up Kabul's regime

"It is a travesty for the political system that foreign countries are going to tell the Netherlands what our country should do," said Labour Party (PvdA) deputy Bert Koenders on 11 January.

He was voicing the anger felt among many MPs about what they see as undue international pressure being put on the Netherlands to join the US-led effort against the Taliban in Uruzgan Province in the south of Afghanistan.

Nato has committed itself to providing a total of 6,000 troops to the mission, with or without Dutch involvement. The fact Dutchman Jaap de Hoop Scheffer is head of Nato makes the indecision all the more uncomfortable for the Dutch government.

The deal

*sidebar1*Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende tried to paper over the cracks within his three-party coalition and in parliament on Tuesday when he made clear the government is 100 percent in favour of the mission.

There is only one problem - it isn't. Ministers of his Christian Democrat Party (CDA) and Liberal Party (VVD) are all for it, but junior partner D66 is opposed.

They came up with a compromise late last year: the government expressed an "intention" to back the mission without taking a real decision, and asked parliament to take up the matter.

Balkenende hoped this would allow him time to persuade a majority of MPs the mission was in the interests of both Afghanistan and the Netherlands. The D66 ministers, on the other hand, hoped MPs would do the dirty work and kill off the deployment.

But parliament wasn't about to carry the can. MPs demanded the cabinet take a decision first. It may also be one of its last major decision Balkenende's government takes.

D66 deputy Bert Bakker told magazine 'Elsevier' sending the troops could be a matter or life and death, militarily and politically. The centre-right coalition government will likely collapse if the mission goes ahead, he said.

Gamble or fold?

The foot-dragging is being watched with incredulity in the US, with mumbling from the Pentagon that the delay proves yet again Nato is a toothless dinosaur.

Superficially, the doubts in the Netherlands centre on the dangers of the mission and fears that prisoners taken by Dutch troops may be executed by the Afghan authorities. Despite assurances on these issues, the opposition remains firm.

This  has a lot to do with the trauma of Srebrenica, when a lightly-armed Dutch force - denied air support - surrendered the enclave to Serbian troops in 1995. The Serbs massacred up to 8,000 Muslim men and boys.

Recalling how doubts about that mission were ignored in 1993, Boris Dittrich, leader of D66, is determined not to "jump on to a speeding train" this time.

The 'train' to Uruzgan must be halted, he said, as the mission was about bringing war to the home turf of the Taliban, and not about peaceful reconstruction.

The Netherlands has 600 soldiers in the north of Afghanistan, where the situation is more peaceful.

Dittrich said there were parallels to be drawn between Srebrenica and the mission to Uruzgan.

Once again humanitarian considerations are prominent, as is the international reputation of the Netherlands. Once again, Dutch military chiefs wanted to prove that the strengthening of the ability to field an expeditionary force was worthwhile.

Strong hand

Balkenende and supporters of the Uruzgan deployment insist it is very different.

In contrast to 1993, the deployment plan is "excellent", the lines of command are clear and in the hands of  Nato.

The Dutch force will be surrounded by the US and its allies. The US forces are in

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