AMSTERDAM, Netherlands — Some time in February, the Dutch government must make a decision that could have profound implications for the future of NATO’s mission in Afghanistan.
The administration in The Hague has said it will decide by March 1 whether to agree to United States requests for Dutch troops to remain in the strategic south-central Afghan province of Uruzgan or whether to obey the wishes of its parliament and pull them out by Dec. 1.
The 2,000 Dutch soldiers are a small part of NATO’s 84,500-strong force, but U.S. and NATO commanders are worried because the Dutch have spent almost three-and-a-half years patiently building up ties with the local population in Uruzgan, a conservative mountain region believed to be birthplace of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.
U.S. officials fear a Dutch pullout could undo that work, unraveling tenuous progress made in stabilizing a volatile region inhabited by Pashtun tribes whose loyalty can swing between the Afghan government and the Taliban. A Dutch departure could also set a trend for other allies under pressure to pull out from the more troublesome parts of Afghanistan, starting with the Canadians in Kandahar.
Sixty nations open a meeting in London today that could set out the beginnings of an exit strategy by mapping a gradual handover of security to Afghan forces. However in the short-term NATO wants allies to send 10,000 more troops to serve alongside the 30,000 reinforcements being deployed by the United States.
U.S. commanders at one time derided the Dutch mission in Uruzgan, accusing them of running from a fight, preferring to work on development projects from the relative safety of the provincial capital Tirin Kot, rather than to pursue the Taliban fighters who infest the outlying highlands.
These days American officials at the highest level acknowledge the worth of the strategy, which the Dutch summed up with the slogan: “Don’t fight the enemy, make him irrelevant.”
The Obama administration has recognized that the Dutch approach of focusing on building confidence and security in the main population centers — including through talks with tribal leaders suspected of Taliban links — has had a major influence on its new approach to the Afghan conflict.
“Much of what we have come up with is modeled on what the Dutch have done,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters at a NATO meeting in December.
“The Dutch forces in Afghanistan came up with the model of the three Ds: defense, diplomacy and development,” she said. “They were ahead of us. The results they got demonstrated the effectiveness of their approach. So, of course, we would like to see the Dutch continue.”
Leaders from the U.S. and other allies have been cranking up pressure in an effort to persuade Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende to maintain the troops based in Uruzgan for at least another year, in line with the Obama administration’s goal of beginning a draw-down in mid-2011.
The 2007 Dutch parliament vote that called for the troops to leave Uruzgan is not legally binding on the government, but Balkenende would need to get a parliamentary majority to extend the mission beyond the lawmakers’ schedule, which calls for the withdrawal to begin in August and end by Dec. 1.
However many in the Netherlands feel it is time for the troops to come home.
“Dutch public opinion feels really bad about it, they don't want the Dutch to be in Afghanistan,” said Sahar Janish, a Dutch journalist of Afghan origin. “They say it's just a filthy war and we are just doing what America wants from us and our soldiers are dying, our sons and daughters are dying and we don't see any benefit from it.”
When NATO decided in December 2005 to expand its peacekeeping mission into the Taliban’s southern heartlands, the Netherlands agreed, along with the British, Canadians and Americans, to take the lead role in one of the four volatile southern provinces brought into the alliance mission.
It was a tough task for a small nation. But for many in the Netherlands’ military the mission was a chance to re-establish its reputation a decade after Dutch soldiers serving in Bosnia with the United Nations in 1995 handed over the “safe haven” of Srebrenica to Bosnian Serb militiamen who went on to massacre 7,000 Muslim men and boys.
Dutch officers point out that they have been in more than 1,000 fire fights in Uruzgan, with the loss of 21 soldiers — including Lt. Dennis van Uhm, the 23-year-old son of the country’s armed forces commander. However while they are ready to take on Taliban hardliners, they say setting out to kill poor farm boys hired to be the militants’ part-time foot soldiers is counter-productive — especially when they can instead be persuaded to lay down their arms.
On the streets of Amsterdam, there is pride in the work the soldiers have done in Uruzgan, but opinions are very much divided about whether the time has come for the troops to come home.
“We did our duty and now it’s enough,” said Gerard Gruppen, an educational administrator. “Afghanistan must look after itself.”
“They should leave, I was against the war in Afghanistan, the U.N. made a wrong decision going there,” contended Elise van Alphen, a Ph.D. student.
“They have to stay,” countered bookseller Eric Klee. “In Uruzgan, they are doing a good job … so I think it would be a shame to pull out now.”
Those divisions are reflected inside the Dutch government. Balkenende and many in his Christian Democratic Appeal party would like the troops to stay, but its coalition partners in the Labor Party and the conservative Christian Union say they should leave.
The U.S. and other nations are making high-level efforts to sway the decision. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden called Dutch Labor Party leader Wouter Bos last week and the U.S. ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder — himself of Dutch descent — led a delegation that visited the troops at Camp Holland outside Tirin Kot recently. Appeals for the Dutch to stay have also come from the British and Australians.
But Dutch political insiders think that Balkenende has little room to maneuver and contend that the most NATO can hope for is that the Dutch will agree to keep a contingent of troops somewhere else in Afghanistan after they withdraw from Uruzgan.
"The chances are very small that the Dutch will continue in Uruzgan,” said Hans van Baalen, a member of the European Parliament representing the liberal opposition Freedom and Democracy party. “They will probably stay in Afghanistan.”