Uruzgan is becoming the Netherlands’ Vietnam

17 December 2007

Uruzgan is becoming the Netherlands’ Vietnam

Waging war should not be done unless the broad support of the people is assured, argue Harry van Bommel, Mariko Peters and Klaas E. Meijer

On Monday 17th December, Parliament begins its debate on Uruzgan a ‘mission impossible’. Almost all anti-guerilla wars have been lost, from Atjeh to Vietnam. In the nineteenth century the British in their ‘Great Game’ tried to take Afghanistan into their sphere of influence. They failed. In the Cold war the Soviet Union tried to take the country under its control. They failed. Indeed, the Societ Union didn't just fail, it destroyed itself.

It isn't only Russian generals who say this war is unwinnable. Dutch generals also, such as De Graaf and Homan, from the Clingendael international research institute, point to the same conclusion. Homan's reasoning has an impressively hard logic. There are simply too few NATO troops. The Soviet Union had two-and-a-half times as many. In Kosovo NATO has forty times as many soldiers per square kilometre.

NATO is trying to make up for this shortage by bombing. The result is civilian deaths, many civilian deaths. Independent journalist Arnold Karskens is not embedded, not wrapped up in defence circles. He unveiled his research findings last Thursday at the hearing organised in Parliament by the SP, the Green Left and Troops Out of Afghanistan – made necessary by the government's refusal to invite any critical voices to their own hearing the following day. His investigation revealed that 300 civilians had died, five times as many civilians as Taliban fighters. Karskens drew the same conclusion as had General Holman, that civilian deaths make the west unpopular and hand the guerrillas ever more support amongst the population. As former Labour (PvdA) defence minister Jan Pronk, who also spoke at out hearing, concluded: the Taliban have come to be seen as a nationalist movement. If we continue alons this path of destruction, Uruzgan will become the Netherlands' Vietnam. We can see this development every day, as what were supposed to be spreading areas of control turn out to be shrinking.

The mission is not only impossible, it is failing on all fronts. ISAF – NATO's International Security Assistance Force – is failing in the area of security. UN research has shown that security has deteriorated. ISAF is also failing in its mission of reconstruction. What were intended to be spreading Willem van der Put, Director of the NGO Healthnet TPO has risked his own health to establish health care projects in Uruzgan and throughout the world. During the hearing he told how his organisation had been able to continue working in Taliban-controlled regions, but not in the small areas – which he referred to as 'inkspots' – controlled by ISAF. The sour-tasting but simple reason for this was that his development workers in regions outside ISAF control fell victim to the guerrillas, punished for ‘collaboration’ with the 'occupier' within them. His conclusion was that “We can help where ISAF troops are present, but without ISAF we could help more.” The results in relation to the fight against drugs are also negative. Since the US invasion in 2001 poppy production has, according to UN figures, undergone a fourteenfold increase, and export of drugs will this year once more increase.

Because of these poor, and sometimes even negative, results, support in the Netherlands for the prolongation of the war is scant. Fewer than half of the population wants the mission to continue. Something as drastic as war should not be conducted without the broad support of the people. It is understandable that Dutch Labour Party leader and deputy Prime Minister Wouter Bos (ex-Shell) should be happy to speak to the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (ex-Chevron), but without broad support, for example within his own party, that same party will have to vote against his wishes. On the PvdA website, however, it can be seen that 55% of those taking part in the discussion on Uruzgan are opposed to any prolongation.

At our hearing, the contours of a peaceful solution in Afghanistan became clear. Jan Pronk made the case for negotiations with the Taliban, now seen by many Afghans as a liberation movement and which is thus a factor of power which cannot be ignored. These negotiations should be conducted under the auspices of the UN. Jan Gruiters, director of IKV Pax Christi, argued for the involvement in the negotiations of neighboring countries, which hold all pof the positions of power in Afghanistan: Pakistan; Uzbekistan in relation to the Uzbekis in Afghanistan; Tadzikistan in relation to the Tadziks, and so on. All of these countries are, as members or – in the case of Afghanistan itself and of Pakistan – united in the SCO, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which has established a seaparte ‘SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group’ and does not want to see a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan. The international consultation structure for a peaceful, democratic, and stable can therefore be put very quickly into place. To that can be added Wim van der Put's proposal that the maintenance of security should be put to a far greater extent into the hands of Afghan military and police personnel and that development aid should be uncoupled from NATO's military forces shows that there are far more effective ways to offer help. Help the Afghans, and help our soldiers – let them come home.

Harry van Bommel and Mariko Peters are, respectively, Members of the Dutch Parliament for the Socialist Party and the Green Left. Klaas E. Meijer is Secretary of the committee “Troepen Terug uit Afghanistan” – Troops Back From Afghanistan, or Troops Out of Afghanistan – to which the SP and Green Left are affiliated.

This article originally appeared in the daily newspaper De Volkskrant, 17 December 2007, and was translated by Steve McGiffen.

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