European Affairs

In deciding to send troops, the Netherlands joined Canada in providing other national contingents alongside U.S. and British forces in expanding the zone of Western peacekeeping efforts in Afghanistan. The Dutch contingent will operate in Oruzgan province starting in August – an advance guard arrived in April. Canadian troops are moving into Kandahar province, home of the country’s main southern town. British forces are deploying in neighboring Helmand province.

The main focus of ISAF has become providing security for the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs): there are 23 of these teams around the country, each numbering between 100 and 200 civilian and military specialists, working on building roads, schools, sanitation systems and similar projects. Protecting these teams and facilitating economic recovery in Afghanistan’s traditionally remote southern area will constitute NATO’s “most ambitious operation” so far in Afghanistan, according to the alliance’s military commander, U.S. General James L. Jones.

This campaign is officially known as “stage 3” in the overall allied plan for restoring Afghan government control and economic life throughout the country. The role of the troops in ISAF is meant to be reconstruction, not hunting down Taliban fighters. That mission is in the hands of U.S. troops and special forces from Britain, Canada, France and other nations. But the mission of providing security will leave some scope for operational interpretation by the commanders on the ground, Dutch parliamentarians were told.


The debate in The Hague aired the full range of concerns among parliamentarians, their parties and public opinion in the Netherlands – and more broadly in Europe – about what circumstances justify sending troops (and possibly using force) to help stabilize post-conflict situations. “It is a dangerous mission, the most dangerous mission since Srebrenica,” Defense Minister Henk Kamp said, referring to the town in Bosnia-Herzegovina where Dutch peacekeepers failed to prevent the massacre of thousands of Moslems by Serbian forces 10 years ago during the civil war in the former Yugoslavia. For the Dutch mission in Afghanistan, the military and political challenges are the same as for the other European countries that have sent troops.

From the outset, the operation promises to be hazardous. Recrudescent Taliban forces have stepped up their attacks on Afghan army and international peacekeeping units trying to improve government control in provincial zones. The arrival of European forces is intended to free some U.S. forces to intensify Operation Enduring Freedom, the military campaign to wipe out Taliban fighters. The two missions are separate in theory, but in practice overlaps seem likely to occur on occasion. The risks, both military and political, were underscored when te Taliban escalated the scale and intensity of their raids in the southern provinces in late spring. The timing of their offensive seemed intended to test the mettle of the newlydeploying Dutch, Canadian and British troops and perhaps undermine support at home for an assignment liable to prove more dangerous and difficult than anticipated. Of course, the heightened tensions also seemed to underscore just how essential the expanded NATO pacification mission had become.

In addition, there are questions about what policy to adopt toward the opium industry in the Afghan provinces. Military commanders, both in NATO and in national task forces, are reluctant to see their troops assigned to deal with this problem. Afghanistan is the world’s leading producer of opium poppies, and there is growing discussion about possible links between drug smugglers and the Taliban in cooperation against the Kabul government and international forces supporting it.

All these aspects crop up in the Dutch parliamentary debate, which offers a first-hand glimpse of the political concerns aroused by the question of national commitments to controversial NATO peacekeeping missions. The debate, including foreign affairs and defense spokesmen, occurred in the second chamber of the Dutch Parliament on February 2, 2006. The subsequent vote supported the government proposal to send troops, including backing from Labor, the main opposition party.

Following is an edited account, translated by European Affairs, of a crucial pre-vote committee debate in the Dutch parliament about the question of sending Dutch troops to take part in expanding NATO-led peacekeeping.

Debate on Sending Dutch Troops to Afghanistan

Dutch Parliamentary Parties

H.J. Ormel (Christian Democrat): NATO “burden-sharing” on missions of this sort means that each country has to pay for the troops it sends. Only the costs associated with Kandahar airport will be met by common funding. That exception [the airport] should be the general rule: We should ask NATO to agree that all member state countries should have financial obligations to share the entire costs of an operation undertaken by the alliance... The goal of this operation is reconstruction – not combating terrorism and then reconstructing, but combating terrorism through reconstruction. It is the right approach to win local people’s confidence...

If terrorists infiltrate Oruzgan, and they can, then they will have to be apprehended. This might require us to support Operation Enduring Freedom. Even then, however, it would not mean that the Dutch operation has become a “war-fighting” mission. After all, we use our military special forces to arrest homegrown Islamicists in this country without describing the domestic situation as being a “war.’’ [In this Afghan mission], there has to be a clear separation between Operation Enduring Freedom and the International Security Assistance Force, and ISAF must have the lead role: the ISAF commander on the ground decides whether he needs intervention by elements of Operation Enduring Freedom... If the commander of Operation Enduring Freedom wants to intervene in the zone under Dutch command, the local Dutch commander should be in charge, with final decisions to be made by the supreme NATO commander, [Major-General] James Jones.

Bert Koenders (Labor): There are doubts about this mission among the Dutch public. Our parliamentary party voted against sending Dutch special forces to participate in Operation Enduring Freedom, partly because of American actions at Guantanamo Bay. In 2001 we felt obligated to support a United Nations mission in Afghanistan to provide a fresh chance for the people there. A lot has been achieved, and the ground has been made less fertile for terrorism, so our international obligations combine with our enlightened self-interest on security (in the light of terrorist attacks in Casablanca,Madrid and London). Now the United Nations and local leaders say this new mission is very desirable and feasible, but we do not want a policy based just on good intentions. Southern Afghanistan is too dangerous for naiveté …[In addition,] we have questions about European solidarity.

The Netherlands should not stand alone, without support from other EU countries.What assistance do Germany and Italy provide to the police and the courts in Afghanistan? What voluntary organizations are ready to help? Under American pressure, the opium-poppy crops in Uzurgan have been cut by 50 percent, but our party does not support this kind of anti-drugs policy without adequate provision for income substitutions for the local population. Has this been discussed with the Afghan authorities? Can we have assurances that Dutch troops and local government forces will look for alternative crops before burning the poppy fields?

As Operation Enduring Freedom units pull out and NATO troops go in, there will be a period of transition and we must be sure that our operations proceed in accordance with international law and human rights. A separation of missions is needed during the interim. In the area where Dutch forces are engaged in reconstruction, there must be no air strikes like the recent one in Pakistan. An air strike against civilian targets contravenes international law. No military operation should be carried out against the will of the Dutch commander.

Hans Van Baalen (Liberals): This challenge tests the determination of nations. In Afghanistan, both ISAF and Operation Enduring Freedom are needed and should not interfere with one another. NATO’s General Jones – who has the final say if a problem arises – has given assurances that the Dutch area commander will not be confronted with any surprises in this regard. For us to be on the moral high ground, all operations will have to remain within the limits of international humanitarian laws. Our party is satisfied with the guarantees about the treatment of prisoners – including the exclusion of any death penalty. The Red Cross will have access to the special detention center in Kandahar, and we would like to see provisions for prisoners to have access to a lawyer and, if necessary, to the Dutch ambassador in Kabul. Understandings between the Dutch and Afghan governments should also apply to any third countries that take charge of prisoners captured by Dutch forces. Prisoners’ whereabouts should be known, without any secret detours or secret prisons … The Netherlands must maintain its strong reputation for contributing – as anchored in our constitution – to international stability, peace and development.

Harry Van Bommel (Socialists): Our party has not supported any mission in Afghanistan. You lose any credibility if you try to fight a war and keep peace in a country simultaneously. In Afghanistan, military action does not curb terrorism, it nurtures terrorism. The framework for intervention there is U.S. foreign policy aimed at American hegemony through violent regime change. All we are is a subcontractor of Washington. Dutch troops will have their lives at risk … Conditions are too unsafe as secret U.S. intelligence evaluations [reported in media leaks] have concluded. This is Taliban country, and a false sense of stability has arisen, according to the International Crisis Group, based on collaboration with warlords who are also drug barons. NATO and the U.S. are pressuring our country with warnings of economic repercussions if we do not participate in the mission.

Farah Karimi (Greens): We are in favor of UN missions and supported the ISAF role in northern and western Afghanistan. But we have always opposed Operation Enduring Freedom because it is just an American hunt for terrorists, and we will oppose it as long as it means arbitrary arrest of potential suspects, abuse, torture, secret transfers and detention without indictments.We welcome the presence of a UN mandate to provide a legal basis. Initially, the United States wanted to transfer the entire war against terrorism to NATO. That did not work out, so the result now is ambiguous and ill-defined, providing the worst possible basis for a military operation.

Srebrenica taught us not to embark on an ill-defined mission without the means to succeed. The demarcation between the command structures of ISAF and Operation Enduring Freedom exists only on paper. In practice, the Americans expect us to join them in offensive operations and so we will be part of an American terrorist hunt that is making the local population hate them. Let’s not kid ourselves: the local population will make no distinction [between the Americans and us]. Our government should have insisted to the Americans that we would go to southern Afghanistan only if they closed Guantanamo and complied with human rights.

Matt Herben (Fortuynists): The dangers of casualties and the financial costs (up to €340 million) should be shared by more countries. The government, under pressure from the [opposition] Socialists, has modified the mission from military enforcement to military-type development assistance. But we think that the plan is a mistake: we should commit for only a year in order to keep up the pressure on other member states of the EU and NATO to support the mission and agree to common funding. If this is a UNmandated operation, why is there not the usual UN funding mechanism? Britain’s Parliament shares this view. The whole civilized world should stand with the UN, not just two countries that can be seen as U.S. messenger boys. It is not just a matter of money; there would be no temptation to blackmail the Netherlands, with the threat of attacks like the one in Madrid, if all the EU nations were contributing militarily or financially.

Foreign Minister Ben Bot (CDA): The international community should intervene and we are doing so … in keeping with the roadmap that gained international support in Bonn in 2001 [in the international conference on Afghanistan]…NATO has acknowledged the inadequacy of the existing financing arrangements…Burden-sharing should be the rule…ISAF is a prime example of the kind of operations required in modern crisis management. A safe environment in post-conflict situations is key to reestablishing [the government’s] authority, and active intervention for security is a necessary element in reconstruction.

Our Memorandum of Understanding with the Afghan authorities meets our parliamentary conditions: no capital punishment, access to information about individuals’ status and decent treatment in conformity with international treaties. But final responsibility for the justice system falls to the Afghan government, not the member states participating in ISAF…Even if the Afghan authorities transferred prisoners to a third country, they could only do so in consultation with the Dutch government. We will resist any transfers to Guantanamo Bay and insist on the right to follow prisoners’ movements. But we cannot guarantee that no one would ever be transferred to Guantanamo because any such decision would be within the sovereign power of the Afghan government.

Defense Minister Henk Kamp (VVD): There will be a demarcation between Operation Enduring Freedom and ISAF, and Operation Enduring Freedom will only be engaged where needed for direct operations against identified terrorists. This must involve clearly identified exceptional cases. A commanding officer in ISAF will be ‘doublehatted’ in the chain of command of both missions’ operations; there will be no risk of hiding behind a lack of knowledge or authority.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 7, Issue number 1-2 in the Spring/Summer of 2006.