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Afghanistan: Parliamentary debate on prolongation of Dutch military presence – Van Bommel calls for ‘credible reconstruction’

17 December 2007

Afghanistan: Parliamentary debate on prolongation of Dutch military presence – Van Bommel calls for ‘credible reconstruction’

Stop the war, open negotiations with the Taliban and concentrate reconstruction on the north and west of Afghanistan. That was the kernel of the argument presented by SP Member of Parliament and foreign affairs spokesman Harry van Bommel in Monday's debate on the prolongation of the Dutch military mission in the southern Afghan province of Uruzgan.

Van Bomnmel during the debate

Harry Van Bommel's contribution to the debate:

Close study of the government's letter to parliament of 30th November reveals that in Uruzgan very little has changed since the parliamentary debate of February 2006, when the House decided to send Dutch military personnel to the south of Afghanistan. A complex and dangerous mission which on the Dutch side has cost twelve lives and seen others seriously wounded. Our sympathy goes to the wounded and to their families and friends, but also to the many veterans who have in some cases discovered how they have been harmed only years after the end of their tour. Our criticism of the mission itself must not be confused with criticism of the people who have carried out decisions taken here. And the fact that we do not support this mission or its prolongation, does not release us from the duty to judge this decision of the government within the framework for the deployment of military personnel and to form a judgement also about the mission to date.

An important remark during the debate at the beginning of last year was the Prime Minister's statement that "in two years the Dutch presence will give way to that of other NATO countries." We cannot interpret the decision of 30th November other than as the breaking of the Prime Minister's word. And also, the decision to prolong the mission until the end of 2010 comes with no assurance that there will be an end to the Dutch military presence. It is true that the leading responsibility in Uruzgan will then be ended, but the government does not as things stand want to make any commitments as to what form the Dutch involvement will take after this period. Why does the government not want to do this? By leaving this open you are creating precisely the same uncertainty as you did with your original decision.

How should we actually consider this conflict? The war in Afghanistan is being waged under the banner of the struggle against international terrorism. The SP is a supporter of the struggle against international terrorism, but does not believe that war is the right answer to this problem. It is also unclear what six years of war have achieved in this struggle against terrorism. Has the world become safer as a result of it? The struggle concentrates on radical Islamicist groups operating out of the frontier region on the borders of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Taliban has not only been its host, but is also a native movement based on Pathan nationalists, Afghan and Pakistani Pathans who to an increasing extent are carrying out their campaigns on both sides of the border. Although a relatively young movement, the Taliban has its roots in an Afghan society which has for more than a hundred years resisted every foreign military intervention in the country.

The war of October 2001 brought down their government, but they are not defeated. Worse still, in recent times the Taliban have turned out to be stronger and better armed than was thought and have won control of territory. The Netherlands went into Uruzgan thinking to bring security and make reconstruction possible but has become a participant in an Afghan war rather than in an international conflict with terrorists.

Does the government agree on the necessity to, whatever one's analysis, draw a distinction between the Taliban as a Pathan nationalist movement and the international terrorists? And how do you propose to drive these two groups apart? To date the government, in common with the rest of NATO, is denying this distinction and thereby making the enemy appear far greater than it in fact is. You admit this implicitly, moreover, in your announcement that the Dutch military is not aiming at the military defeat of the Taliban but at making them irrelevant.

The words of NATO boss De Hoop Scheffer to the effect that we have the upper hand in Afghanistan sound, against this background, like simple propaganda. All experts, including in Afghanistan itself, say that the Taliban cannot be defeated militarily. The Taliban is a part of the problem and must also be part of the solution. We find it also a cause for hope that the Afghan President Karzai is not only seeking conciliation with low-level Taliban but is also aiming to negotiate with more highly-placed Taliban leaders. Karzai announced this last week to the British Premier Gordon Brown. Is the Netherlands also informed about this?

Peace in Afghanistan will not be achieved through the deployment of heavy artillery, mortar bombs, battle helicopters and F16s. The use of these will, just like the use of treacherous roadside bombs, bring about a great loss of human lives as well as many mutilating injuries. The government notes that the number of fatalities caused by acts of violence in 2007 is estimated at 6000. Why is the government not more precise about the number of military victims and the number of dead insurgents and civilians? Surely more transparency must be possible when it comes to the number of dead soldiers.

President Karzai has regularly complained about the large number of civilian deaths and reminded us that an Afghan life is worth just as much as a western life. Of course he is right, and NATO has agreed to take steps to limit the number of civilian deaths. What do these agreements contain? Is there moreover a chance of seeing the figures on casualties among civilians and insurgents in Uruzgan? And is it true that the number of prisoners after more than a year of military activity by the Task Force Uruzgan does not amount in the end to more than fourteen?

The SP has said repeatedly that we should call things by their true names. The Netherlands is waging war in the south of Afghanistan. This is shown by personal testimony, such as that of Colonel Vermeij in the Reformatorisch Dagblad (a daily newspaper associated with one of the major Dutch Protestant churches – Ed.). Colonel Vermeij describes how, during Operation Medusa, he had to take a decision regarding – in his own words – "the elimination of at least a thousand Taliban fighters." Or the report of the Canadian General Fraser on Operation Baaz Tsuka, in which he says that the Taliban "felt strong and numerous enough to dig in and wage a statistical war." Or Operation Achilles, the attack on Chora and now Spin Ghar – these seem more like war than anything else. It might not be called such under international law, but in practice it comes to the same thing.

This autumn at a memorial service General Berlijn (the head of the Netherlands' defence staff – Ed.) revealed that the mission had never, for the military themselves, been a reconstruction mission. They turn out to have seen it as a war all along. The general is right. This is of course no reconstruction mission. Because the mission was originally presented as such the average newspaper reader continues to follow reports with great distrust. This is distrust of politicians, especially of the Labour Party, which was only willing to swallow this mission if it could continue to be a reconstruction mission. And if that still isn't enough, we now hear talk in these circles of a mission that is being phased out.

The SP is saying to the government, call things by their proper names! Be completely open about developments on the battlefield, about the weapons employed, about the victims. In the government's letter there was mention of 'respectful and reserved actions', but the newspapers write about the Dutch F16s which have to date dropped at least two hundred 500 lb bombs. As for the heavy artillery, these are now employed once more in the Beluchi Valley. Why do we read this in the papers, but not in the information sent to parliament by the government? The government in this way fosters the suspicion that they want to sell this struggle as a clean war.

One of the critical points regarding this mission is the parallel running of the ISAF security mission with the American war action Enduring Freedom. Because ISAF in cases of urgent necessity has to call on support from units involved in Enduring Freedom, there is a permanent risk. There are, furthermore, on the ground also American soldiers from Enduring Freedom active in the ISAF region. The whole of Afghanistan is, when it comes to it, ISAF territory. The number of offensive actions conducted under the flag of ISAF has meanwhile appeared so great that in terms of the deployment of military strength also the distinction between the two missions has become completely meaningless.

What is it that, in the government's view, continues to justify this distinction between the two missions? Or does Enduring Freedom continue to exist purely and simply so that the Americans in this mission can operate off their own bat? Has the Dutch government, moreover, seen the results of Enduring Freedom? We don't see them, we don't hear them – do they indeed exist?

For the average Afghan all of these foreign soldiers are much of a muchness. The distinction between ISAF and Enduring Freedom is a political question, destined for consumption in the countries sending the troops.

The combating of poppy cultivation and the trade in its products will be one decisive factor in determining the possibility of establishing Afghan control in the south. The drugs trade provides warlords and insurgents with money and arms. The cooperation of the police and lower levels of government is bought or extorted. The problem is not the small farmers who could be offered the chance to grow alternative products such as saffron, nuts and fruit. The struggle is rather with the major producers and will come down to a real war on drugs. From the government's letter it is not clear how these major producers can be removed from the game. They are not susceptible to the small-scale projects which the international community can offer. For them the drugs trade is tied up with power and with territorial control. It says much that poppy production last year grew hugely and that this growth is mainly to be seen in the south.

The government writes that "reconstruction remains a matter of small steps. In the coming period any question of great leaps forward will be limited." Soldiers are not development workers and many development workers would rather stay out of soldiers' way. The health care organisation Healthnet, for example, is accustomed to getting results under extremely unfavourable circumstances, even – or indeed perhaps precisely – when there are no soldiers in the background. Development workers who are seen as an extension of the military are in immediate danger. This goes also therefore for the provincial reconstruction teams and their military escort.

From the answers to written questions can be taken the following picture: this year half-a-dozen Dutch organisations received some 25 million euros for projects which could only, moreover, be judged on paper. In addition the bills were paid for repairs to roads, irrigation canals and houses. Lastly, money was allocated for the activities of the Afghan ministries of health, education and regional development. With all of this effort only some 50% of the population of Uruzgan was reached., most of whom can be principally found where the population is most heavily concentrated.

In the most favourable case NATO troops appear to be able to hold on to a small number of enclaves in the south. Connecting roads between the major towns are under the control of the insurgents, as are outlying areas. The great extent of the country and the limited presence of foreign troops which this brings about mean that earlier military powers which attempted to maintain control in Afghanistan spoke of a 'mission impossible'. NATO has made Afghanistan into the litmus test for its existence. What has NATO learned from the Russian failure in Afghanistan?

Nobody wants to turn their back on Afghanistan. For far too long the world has not concerned itself over the lamentable fate suffered by its population. The question now is whether this population is helped by the muddle that NATO has put on to the agenda in the south of Afghanistan. The almost continual battles between foreign troops and insurgents demonstrate that the NATO presence in the south is not only combating violence but also attracting it.

And given the open border with Pakistan and the Talibanisation of parts of that country, the waging of war against the Taliban is swimming against the tide. For every insurgent killed, fifty escape over the border. NATO, moreover, has scarcely brought the troops together and the Dutch armed forces are coming apart at the seams. It has reached a point where savings must be made on catering for soldiers in their bases. A worse way of recruiting for a job is hardly imaginable: they'll soon be forced to bring sandwiches from home.

If we want to help the Afghan people, then we must put an end to the war against the Taliban. Only a regional solution, with the full involvement of Pakistan and Iran, has any chance of success. In those countries are millions of Afghan refugees who are being dispatched over the border in their hundreds of thousands to be sent back to regions where there is nothing.

Negotiations with the Taliban, aimed at national reconciliation, amnesty and inclusion in the political process, these are where the accent must be placed. As things stand, only in the north and west can credible reconstruction take place. The SP calls on the government to make the case in NATO for this essentially different agenda.

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