Moving house, coming home

20 April 2010

Moving house, coming home

Harry van Bommelby Harry van Bommel

Six years ago I moved house. For the first time in my life I used a removals firm and I have to say that it was a relief to do so. All your stuff packed away and lugged off, all the transport organised and done by other people, job done in a single day. A question of good preparation and sound planning.

As I write there are 1,600 Dutch soldiers in the the Netherlands, in the regions of Utrecht and Gelderland, getting ready to transport military units and their matériel back from the Afghan province of Uruzgan. Marines, armoured infantry units and members of the 11th Light Mobile Battallion will soon be serving as a removals service for the armed forces. Brigadier General Jan Broeks is the head of the removal mission, and he has a big problem. He doesn't know what should come back to the Netherlands and what can stay in Uruzgan, a nightmare for any removals firm. Broeks would prefer to leave much of the older weaponry as a gift for the Afghans, but fears that the Americans will object. He has 750 armoured containers designed for use as living or work space which were bought specially for the Uruzgan mission. Should these come back or not?

The Brigadier General is scarcely to blame, forced as he is to work with so many uncertainties. If anyone is to blame, it's Defence Minister Eimert van Middelkoop. Ever since 2007 it has been known that the Uruzgan mission would be over by the end of 2010, plenty of time to plan and prepare this withdrawal. Yet the removal will cost not the €115 million reserved for it, but a probable €229 million, perhaps more, whatever actually ends up being removed, and not counting the bribes which will have to be paid to the warlords to persuade them to allow matériel to be transported unhindered along the roads. At the end of December, preparations had not been completed, with Brigadier General Broeks himself calculating on staying in the south of Afghanistan until 1st May, 2011.

Any removals firm which was unable to avoid such a delay and such runaway bills would be bankrupt within a year. The Ministry of Defence can of course not go bankrupt and so the removal operation will continue, whatever the costs. When the whole Afghan mission is behind us, which will be quite soon, the national accounting office should calculate its total cost and look into why the costs were so out of control. One things seems certain, Van Middelkoop is incapable of budgeting or planning. He has landed his successor with a problem.

Or is it perhaps the case that the minister took for granted that the stay in Uruzgan would be prolonged, and with the same matériel and the same mission? If so, he's blundered twice. As well as being a bad planner, he's a bad politician. With no sign of any positive results, escalating costs, heavy losses, demonstrable corruption and fraudulent elections, support amongst politicians and the broader society for a longer stay has melted away like snow in the Afghan sun. This is something else that the minister should have seen coming.

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