hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Should I Stay or Should I Go? Kunduz: Afghan for Double Dutch

OBL is dead and here in the Netherlands we are about to mark two days of annual remembrance. May 4 is Commemoration Day and May 5 Liberation Day, both of which remember the fallen of World War Two. It is perhaps fitting therefore that I give you some sense of where this country is at. Nowhere, really.

The Dutch are rapidly transforming themselves from a small country with a big heart and a sense of international responsibility, into an even smaller country with a focus firmly on all matters Dutch...and nothing too dangerous. In so doing the Dutch are in the process of bringing to an end sixty years of committed transatlanticism. They are also breaking Lindley-French’s First Law of Alliances; that a retreat by one ally imposes an equal and opposite burden on other allies.

On 8 April the Dutch Government announced a cut of EUR1.1bn, some 13% of the defence budget. The statement from the minister tried to hide behind the 2010 British Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) which slashed the British armed forces. There is one minor problem with this approach. Well, two actually.

First, the British could at least plausibly cut. The Dutch not. In a major 2010 report for the Royal United Services Institute (“Between the Polder and a Hard Place?”), Col Anne Tjepkema and I definitively proved that over the past twenty years the Dutch have been serial defence cutters. By 1999 the Dutch Government had removed so much defence ‘fat’ that the Dutch armed forces were positively anorexic. Thereafter, they were cutting bone and now they are simply trying to hide the body.

Second, even after the SDSR the British will still be spending some 2.1% of national wealth on defence. If one takes the Dutch gendarmerie force (the Royal Marechausee) off the books the Dutch will be spending less than 1% of national wealth on defence. Less than half the Brits. Whatever way one cuts this the Dutch are free-riding.

Afghanistan is where the consequences of going Dutch are most apparent. Not to my taste but in 1981 The Clash had a hit entitled, “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” They may well have been singing about the proposed Dutch ‘contribution’ to the police training mission in Kunduz, northern Afghanistan.  The parliamentary debate has led Dutch politicians to tie themselves up in all sorts of utterly pointless rhetorical knots.  It is double Dutch at its best. 

On the one hand the politicians seemingly want to do the minimum possible to meet their Alliance obligations; on the other they clearly want to get out of Afghanistan quickly.  Some of us thought they had already left!  In 2010 they withdrew the excellent Task Force Uruzgan. 

Now, I am all for parliamentary sovereignty, but I am also one for the equitable sharing of burdens. This ain’t it! Indeed, as an example of political sleight of hand the parliamentary debate over the Kunduz mission is fast becoming a Dutch masterpiece.

This is no joke. A few weeks ago I attended a high-level meeting at a NATO force headquarters in the Netherlands. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the critical role of police training in creating a basic, but functioning Afghan state – the key to ‘success’.

Two things struck me. First, the vital importance of establishing a police force worthy of the name that is relevant to the streets of Mazar-El-Sharif, not Maastricht. Second, the shadow-boxing of many European allies – committed in principle, back-tracking in practice. Make no mistake, if we do not make some real progress in the area of Afghan policing we might as well pack up and go home now. Some 750 police trainers short in spite of the sterling efforts of the NATO and EU police training missions, the situation is not pretty. No-one said it would be easy, but no-one suggested ‘we’ would make the task harder.

That is why the double Dutch of the parliamentary debate here is so galling. The Dutch police trainers (both of them) are to train the Afghan recruits to “Dutch objectives”. As part of those ‘objectives’ the Dutch have insisted upon a written guarantee from the Kabul Government that the police will not be used to fight the Taliban. Of course, Kabul has said yes to this; as it says ‘yes’ to every such request... which is then promptly ignored. In reality the constraints being placed on the mission by the Dutch opposition and the willingness of the Dutch Government to pander to such posturing is rendering the mission meaningless in terms of the collective effort.

The Dutch opposition say that only a small part of the population support the mission. Well, the same can be said of populations in the US and UK, but it is the job of political leaders to lead. We are all of us tired of the Afghan imbroglio and we are all of us keen to leave. However, it is vital that we all leave together and that we all make a proportionate effort to give that benighted country some chance of a future. OBL’s death changes that reality not one jot.

And yet, at this critical moment in the campaign the Dutch Parliament is ducking out and trying to find a way so that the rest of do not notice. Sorry, it is too late for that.

I am proud of my adopted country. I am particularly proud of the men and women of the Dutch armed forces that I have had the honour to serve.  They are decent people who want to do their ‘bit’ and deserve better from their political class.

Often I visit my fallen countrymen laying in military rows of sacrifice in their thousands in the many war graves that mark the liberation of the Netherlands. As I walk from grave to grave with their little messages of love from families now long gone I lament the fact that we are all of us forgetting the very lessons of democratic solidarity that led them to die in a corner of a Dutch field that will be forever England.

Today, on the eve of two days of Commemoration and Remembrance I wonder why yet again it is British soldiers, and their American counterparts, bearing an unreasonable burden for the Alliance somewhere in the corner of yet another foreign field. Sadly, as I write this I know I will soon hear of yet another British soldier killed in action. He (or she) will join his brothers buried across the Netherlands.

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori? No, not really.

Should you stay or should you go? It’s up to you, but we shall not forget. Remember that!

Julian Lindley-French

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