The Dutch in Afghanistan: a Political Soap

There is a stereotype about the Dutch, that they are rather…ehem… careful with money and resources. However, and in spite of recent policy developments, when it comes to support for different causes, the Dutch are seen as a reliable and generous force around the world. And that’s what the Dutch in Afghanistan also tried to be, but did they succeed?

It was precisely this generosity and reliability, along with some political wiggling, that took Dutch soldiers to Afghanistan as early as 2002. They were part of NATO forces  under the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), it’s main purpose was to help Afghans fight  insurgent groups and, later on, (re) build their country. In 2003, the Dutch and the Germans had command over 4600 soldiers, 650 of whom Dutch.

Dutch in Afghanistan
We’ve simpled it down for you. Kunduz is the small province up north, Uruzgan (the other one) is where the majority of the Dutch forces served in general.

Between 2004 and 2006, the Dutch were involved in the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Baghlan province. After the end of that mission, and until 2010, the Netherlands became active ensuring staibility and security in Uruzgan province. But the mission turned out to be about fighting more than about reconstruction. As they say, no good deed goes unpunished and, the discussion on whether to extend the Uruzgan mission past 2010 was the last straw on the Balkenende IV Cabinet. The parliamentary debate led to its early demise and the call for new elections, set for July of 2010. Dutch politicians, however, would not be deterred by the small setback and, with a new government in sight, Parliament began asking how they could still be of help to ISAF and NATO.

Enter cabinet Rutte-I, led by the jolly Mark Rutte and a brand new foreign affairs team.

Afghanistan - Dutch cabinet
Rutte 1 was a minority cabinet of the CDA (Verhagen-left), VVD (Rutte) and the PVV of Geert Wilders. They also won the imaginative contest of most conservative cabinet ever. (Source: Flickr/Minister-President)

They were fully committed and ready to go. Armed with the 2009 Assessment Framework (which must be examined to determine to what extent the country can participate in military operations abroad) and Article 100 of the Dutch Constitution, they kindly asked Congress to discuss the possibilities to deploy armed forces to maintain and promote the international legal order. Sound complicated? Could be, Article 100 is also used to be secretive and conspiracy theoristy when it comes to international military affairs. Yes, the Dutch like their military missions to be as general policies in the low-lands itself: ambiguous, morally complex, half-hearted and overly complicated.

The debate dragged on, raising many more questions as to the real role and impact the Dutch government should aspire to in this global world, particularly in military affairs. By January of 2011, in the answer was clear. The Dutch would share their institution-building knowledge where it was most needed. And so, Minister Opstelten of Safety and Justice and the State Secretary Kempen , of European Affairs and Development Cooperation, announced that the government had chosen for an integrated police training mission. Integrated because it would contemplate not only guns but also aid and development,  in the training of local police in the province of Kunduz.

– Wait a minute! Didn’t they tell us that Uruzgan was also going to be about building schools instead of killing Taliban? –

This did not go very well with either the Dutch representatives or the public opinion. What would prevent a trainee from taking a Dutch weapon and crossing over to the other side? How could the safety of the troops, not on a combat mission, be guaranteed in an area not deemed safe? Not to worry, the governor and head of police in Kunduz, extended letters of assurance, insisting  that the intrepid Dutch warriors would be perfectly safe. Hmm, perhaps some spinning and framing was needed here…

Left leaning parties, particularly the Labour party, opposed the measure on principle. In a perfect example of Dutch democratic principles however, smaller parties such as the Green Left, the Christian Union and the leftist-liberals of D66 were put on the spotlight. Their support was needed if this mission were to succeed and Afghans were to be trained in police work. The approval of the Kunduz mission came to rest on their shoulders alone, after the larger parties refused to support Mr Rutte.

GreenLeft Afghanistan
Especially the GreenLeft party saw some heavy infighting with regard to the possible employment of the troops. (and apparently, also some sleazy political propaganda with boobs involved)

The small parties asked for hard guarantees that the mission would be squarely focused on safety, human rights and other reconstruction activities, no shooting required. In the end, the smaller parties came through for Minister Rutte.
Then, the Kunduz mission took its first political victim, even before any soldier or trainer set foot in Afghan soil. The Green Left has been rendered practically moot due to internal squabbles, and one of the most divisive issues was, indeed, the police training mission.

The Dutch were expected to teach police work and methods to the newly minted recruits for the Afghan police and would in principle keep on doing so until 2014. Yet the first troops are already coming back, a year earlier than expected. German troops, which were responsible for protecting the training mission participants, are leaving the country and so the Dutch must go along with them. This can be seen as a positive sign. According to the government the integrated police mission has laid the foundations for the whole chain of justice in Kunduz and the Afghans are ready to assume responsibility for their own security. In such a short time, the Dutch have managed to contribute a rather large stone to institutional building in Afghanistan. Some may be surprised that in such a short time the Dutch have managed such a feat.

It could be that enemy resistance just gave up when our mighty warlord, and 40-something single historian, Mark Rutte inspected the mission.
It could be that enemy resistance just gave up when our mighty warlord, and 40-something single historian, Mark Rutte inspected the mission. (Source: Flickr/Minister-president)

On the other hand, there is cynicism as well (it is the Netherlands after all). God knows what barely trained- illiterate Afghan police recruits can do in a country torn apart by drug problems, widespread corruption, and of course good old-fashioned war. There were also reports of Dutch trainers sitting around and doing nothing due to a scarcity of recruits and equipment. And now they’re already leaving? One could easily make a case that the Kunduz police force isn’t the finest police force in the world today and all the Dutch (political) trouble has been for nothing.

The results are still up for debate, but it may take long before the real effect of the Kunduz mission fully hits, either at home or in Afghanistan.

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