Talking with the Taliban No Longer Taboo

15 April 2008

Talking with the Taliban No Longer Taboo

Talking with the Taliban in Afghanistan is no longer taboo for the Dutch government. Although Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende distanced himself from the idea during the government debate on the issue, Defence Minister Eimert van Middelkoop did not follow his lead in today's defence policy debate in the Senate. Although avoiding using the word 'negotiations', he did not dismiss attempts to divide sections of the Taliban from the movement's hard core by means of talks, and in this way to look for a solution to the conflict. The minister said as much in his answer to suggestions from SP Senator Arjan Vliegenthart, tabled with the support also of Senator Frank van Kappen of the centre-right opposition Liberals, the VVD. Van Middelkoop insisted, however, that the initiative for any such talks must be taken by the Afghan government.

This was not the only softening evident in the stated opinions of the cabinet when compared to its predecessor. Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen acknowledged during the same debate that NATO is developing a new strategic concept, which he wished to discuss in broader fora than that provided by the debate in the Senate. When Senator Vliegenthart asked him to expand on this, the minister replied that "the idea that we must communicate with the broad population regarding NATO's future is certainly present." But in reply to the proposal from the SP Senator that to this end NATO Secretary General Jaap De Hoop Scheffer should be invited to the Netherlands, Verhagen indicated that he was happy to leave this to parliament's discretion and initiative.

Secretary of State Jack de Vries noted that in recent times there had been an enormous turnover of defence personnel. In the past year 1341 more armed forces personnel had left for civilian occupations than had been recruited, with the figure for the first two months of 2008 alone reaching 480.

To Vliegenthart's question as to whether this was connected to events in Uruzgan, he said that people explained their reluctance to join the armed forces increasingly with reference to the concerns of family members, who often had grave misgivings about their loved ones' putting their lives at risk by joining the army. Nevertheless, he believed that the negative trend could be reversed in the coming year, and neither by softening recruitment demands nor by taking on people with a criminal record.

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