Seven years in Afghanistan: a tragic balance sheet for the Netherlands

22 March 2009

Seven years in Afghanistan: a tragic balance sheet for the Netherlands

It's more than seven years ago that the first Dutch soldiers left for Afghanistan in order to make the country safe and begin its reconstruction. This made the Netherlands one of the pioneers of the western presence. Below, SP Member of Parliament Harry van Bommel, the party's spokesman on foreign affairs, draws up a balance sheet of these years. 'The Netherlands has spent many hundreds of millions of euros in a short space of time in Afghanistan. This has gone primarily on military equipment. On the ground the Afghans have seen very little of it. Just think what good things we could have done with that money!'

Harry van BommelOriginally, the talk was of a reconstruction mission. What have we seen of this?

Very little. A number of schools have been opened, a few wells, none of it can be related to the capital which this mission is costing or the risks which our soldiers run every day there. The area where the Dutch are stationed, Uruzgan, has to a growing extent had to cope with Taliban activities. On a large number of terrains you can even say there had been deterioration. Afghanistan has, since the first attacks at the end of 2001, become more dangerous each year. Every year more civilians die.

Has this become a combat mission?

Absolutely, and that's hardly denied now by the Defence Ministry. It's not a case of running into a few angry goat-herds from time to time and having to fight them, but of regular warfare, with heavy artillery. Air raids, mortar fire, that sort of thing. Preserving their own safety and fighting insurgents is the core of their work, not offering a future to the local population. They're constantly caught between a rock and a hard place.

Have you a good understanding of what's happening over there, looking at it from the Netherlands?

Since we went in not only eighteen Dutch soldiers have lost their lives in the fight against resistance groups, but also an unknown number of civilians. Estimates of this latter figure differ greatly, but it almost certainly runs into hundreds - hundreds of innocent men, women and children. The problem is, however, that the government doesn't want to offer any clarity as to what is really happening. Certainly not when it comes to the number of civilian deaths. All you hear is that it is the Taliban who are principally responsible for these civilian deaths.

As a Member of Parliament, what can you do about this?

Follow up foreign sources, and keep putting questions. So I have recently asked for an explanation regarding 'Operation Perth'. Journalist Arnold Karskens has written an article about how much uncertainty there is over this. According to the Defence Ministry, in the summer of 2006 eighteen Taliban fighters were killed in this operation and no prisoners were taken. But Captain Kroon, who was recently nominated for the highest military distinction for his role in the operation, told a journalist that some of those under his command had fired on wounded men. Australian newspapers say that 150 were killed. A human rights organisation stated that amongst these were women and children. As a Member of Parliament you should be checking up on what is being done in the name of the Netherlands, so I keep putting questions about openness.

Have Dutch soldiers been amongst those responsible for the deaths of civilian victims?

That's precisely what we want to know. The Defence Minister, Eimert Van Middelkoop, wants, on the basis of this operation, to give a soldier the highest possible distinction, the military 'Willemsorde', but this cannot of course be done until we have clarity over what precisely happened. This is a distinction to which many conditions are attached. So what seems certain to me is that we must be sure that in the operation in which the medal was earned, the Geneva Convention was respected.

What remains to be expected of this mission?

Very little. It will muddle on until the end of 2010.

And after that? Will we simply leave Afghanistan to its fate?

As far as the SP is concerned, no. President Obama wants to send more and more western troops to Afghanistan in order to continue the fight, but the Netherlands should not go along with this. Far better to invest in facilities in the areas which are peaceful, firstly to ensure that what you construct won't be immediately blown up, but also so that people in other parts of the country will be able to see what they have to gain from peace. If they see that peace leads to good roads, good health care and real development, they'll be much more inclined to pursue it. The Taliban use misery as a seedbed. If you get rid of this misery, the Taliban's harvest of frustration will diminish. And then we should leave Afghanistan above all to the Afghans. In the end they want, just like everyone else, to be in charge of their own country. That means also that we should not be imposing our form of society or our idea of democracy.

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