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Uruzgan: soldiers' union signals need for serious debate

13 October 2009

Uruzgan: soldiers' union signals need for serious debate

The soldiers' trade union AFMP is right to be critical over the question of the mission in the Afghan region of Uruzgan, argues Harry van Bommel. Defence Minister Eimert Van Middelkoop's anger over the union's position is misplaced. The AFMP's statement should form the overture to a debate which is urgently needed.

by Harry van Bommel, Member of Parliament for the SP

Harry van BommelDefence Minister Eimert van Middelkoop is angry with the chairman of the soldiers' union AFMP/FNV for the latter's expression of doubt as to whether Afghan President Hamid Karzai should be kept in office with Dutch support. On Monday the minister described the statement as "unworthy of a serious professional association." This is unjust. Active military personnel are not allowed to comment on the political aims of a mission, but this certainly doesn't apply to their unions.

AFMP chairman Wim van den Burg is quite right to have drawn attention to doubts about Karzai's credibility. The current Afghan government is embroiled in corruption and the recent elections were, according to the electoral commission, neither free nor fair. In addition, Karzai is collaborating with warlords charged with war crimes and approving laws which lead to the unacceptable subordination of women.

Were this kind of thing to happen in any other country, the Netherlands would put an immediate stop to aid. Van den Burg has thus touched a raw nerve and this is now being held against him. The question must, however, be put: what kind of society are we helping to construct, in the name of peace?

To reproach military trade unions for involving themselves in political questions is unjust, a misplaced criticism. Parliament has, after all, invited these same organisations to hearings which were also broadcast, so that their views are already well-known. Now that a leader, speaking in the name of his members, has expressed doubts, however, this is seen suddenly as a problem. Those who bring bad news are seldom welcomed with a fanfare, but that is no reason to disqualify Van den Burg from speaking.

Clinging on

As for the suggestion that the AFMP chairman's remarks were untimely, I can certainly see why some people think so. It is only just over a week ago that two Dutch soldiers were killed in Uruzgan, while in The Hague last week discussions were held with US authorities over the possible prolongation of the Dutch presence in the form of a limited number of military personnel. Van den Burg could indeed have waited until this decision has been taken, but then his words would of course have come too late. In addition, his remarks had a great deal to do with the election process, which has still not led to a result.

There is absolutely no valid reason to cling to our mission in Afghanistan. What is unfolding there is a Vietnam scenario, in which ever more soldiers are sent, ever more civilians die, and support amongst the population back home dwindles by the day. The sooner an honest debate is held on this matter the better. The AFMP's doubts provide the perfect starting point for just such a discussion.

This article was first published in Dutch in the daily newspaper Reformatorisch Dagblad on 17th September 2009

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