Interview with Harry van Bommel: ‘I won’t trade human lives for prestige’

11 February 2011

Interview with Harry van Bommel: ‘I won’t trade human lives for prestige’

The SP is against the police mission to Afghanistan. Still, the training of Afghan police officers would under certain conditions be, for Harry van Bommel, ‘open to discussion. The Taliban aren’t just going to let themselves be taken away in Black Marias.’ An interview with Harry van Bommel. • By Machiel Rebergen

The coalition government of right-wing liberals and Christian Democrats want to send police trainers to Afghanistan with the aim of establishing a stable local police force. You’re against this. Why?

Harry van BommelIf it was only a matter of establishing a police force, I wouldn’t give it a second thought. The European Union’s police mission in Afghanistan, Eupol, enjoyed the SP’s support, because it was purely a training mission, based in a training centre. But now soldiers are going as well.

But you have to protect these trainers, and the recruits, from attack.

Of course, but the big problem is that Prime Minister Mark Rutte wants to send soldiers in order to deploy them operationally. They will be performing paramilitary tasks. An ‘integrated mission’ is what they call it. These soldiers will be going, as a part of the training, out on missions with the recruits. So – performing house searches, tracking down Taliban fighters and arresting them. Taliban fighters aren’t just going to let themselves be taken away in Black Marias, so we’ll be right back in armed conflict situations.

If they don’t get practical exercises, doesn’t it sound a bit like a practice match – amateur opponents today, Real Madrid tomorrow?

I hear that argument often, but it’s a misconception. Our own soldiers are trained in the Dutch countryside, where they do the same job as they do in a war. Afghans should be able to do the same.

Is a training mission completely out of the question for the SP?

No. You could bring recruits to the Netherlands. That’s what the French did with Croatians. But I would still have a major problem: if we do send this mission, we will continue to follow the misguided American plans for Afghanistan, namely to force the country by violent means to adopt a certain form. The executive that we are now helping to maintain control is as corrupt as it’s possible to be, all the way up to President Karzai. So in the manner this is proposed, it’s implausible.

Say that Rutte agrees to a more limited mandate, under which there is no question of going out on mission, would you be prepared to support such a plan?

The debate will to a large extent revolve around this question. But Rutte has already said quite clearly in his briefing to Parliament that a pure training mission like Eupol would not go far enough for him. But if he lets this element drop, we can talk. Which does not however mean that we would, under these conditions, automatically give it a green light.

Why not take an extra step, and say that on these conditions the SP would simply offer their support?

Because my other fundamental objection, that we shouldn’t be supporting the American agenda and the use of violence, still applies.

What if we were to send recruits on missions accompanied by Germans?

For me it’s not a matter of danger for our Dutch soldiers. My objection is to a war mission, whether by Dutch or German soldiers – because that isn’t the strategy that this country needs. Nor is it concern for Afghan lives, no – it’s a rejection of the strategy of violence.

Our allies will think us really cowardly.

No, they don’t think that. In proportional terms we’ve already done a great deal. More than the Germans, for instance.

I saw yesterday on CNN pictures of two men who were whipping a woman. Unfortunately there was sound, and she screamed. That’s precisely what a well-trained police force – if the western troops go home – must prevent, surely?

But that isn’t at all why we started this war. We’re there to combat terrorism. The prisons are full of women whose husbands are dead and who have afterwards begun a relationship with another man. That is equally unjust, but western troops do nothing about it. On the basis of that argument we should also attack Iran and Pakistan. That kind of injustice can’t be prevented by war. In order for that to happen the country will have to undergo cultural, social, economic and political development.

That sort of development you do have to temporarily secure by force, surely? Otherwise you make it extremely easy for the extremists to recapture the country. Everyone who tries to effect reconstruction in a peaceful manner will be trodden under foot.

Fighting isn’t the solution. If you kill a single tribal elder you have the whole tribe to contend with, and the next generation too. Violence works in the wrong direction. It ensures that moderate people are radicalised. The only way out for Afghanistan is to share the power. All parties must be part of this power. Look, the Taliban are the original population of this country. Fifteen to twenty per cent are ultra-orthodox, eighty per cent are moderate. They have to share the power proportionally. And those extremists who want to oppress the rest, you simply have to combat them. That’s why Afghanistan needs an army and a police force.

Farmers who want to grow fruit instead of poppies, who want to allow their wife a measure of freedom and their daughters an education, wouldn’t we then be leaving them in the lurch?

What we are doing now is making the warlords and the rabble stronger. We’re paying them to allow us to pass safely through their areas to supply our soldiers. We’re strengthening these clans, and if we leave soon they will have all the weapons and money, in short all the resources they need to bring these farmers under their control. If we maintain support for these farmers they at least have a chance.

You say that Rutte and his Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen want to renew the mission mainly in order to stay friends with America.

Yes, the Americans put a tremendous amount of pressure on the Netherlands. Balkenende, the Prime Minister at the time, was invited to the G-20, but Rutte has not been. The Netherlands’ prestige was continually brought into the debate.

Isn’t our international reputation a valid argument?

Not in my view, no. That’s staking human lives against your standing in another arena.

Sure, but that’s how things are in the world.

That’s right, and I’m well aware of the relationship between war and our prestige, but I find that a reprehensible reason to go to war.

Do you think that Rutte and Verhagen are happy to sit down with the Americans out of personal vanity?

I've seen how Verhagen enjoyed dealing with Hilary Clinton. He even kissed her! The pictures of Balkenende and De Hoop Scheffer with Bush... shameful pictures.

Such a highly moral way of operating won’t get you very far in the world of international politics, I’m afraid.

Perhaps so, but I’m not willing to trade people’s lives for prestige. Unacceptable.

The vanity which you sense in Verhagen, does that also go for Rutte?

Everyone wants to sit down with Obama. Including me. At the same time I believe that his thoughts were sincerely on the position of the Netherlands. He was afraid that we would become the laughing stock of NATO.

If the Russians attack us in say 2019, will I be glad that Rutte appeased the Americans in 2011?

In that case Article 5 would come into play: an attack on one is an attack on all.

The Green Left’s votes – which are still uncertain – will be decisive as to whether all of this goes through. What are you doing to tempt them?

I confront her with the fact that this is not the mission asked for when they proposed the idea of a training mission. They asked for a training mission, but what they’ve got are combat missions, with bomber planes thrown in. Things they didn’t ask for.

They were fooled by Rutte?

Rutte wants to play a practical joke on the Green Left, yes. The plan fulfils their wishes in part, but for a large part it does not.

Publicity gives the Green Left the title of the party that successfully rebelled against this government. Envious?

Absolutely not. I think that this Green Left could cause harm. By so openly doubting, you are giving away that you just had to say yes. It is indeed the case that the Labour Party, when they had their doubts about the prolongation of the mission in Uruzgan, got a great deal of media attention. And now the Green Left is getting the attention.

Perhaps you should doubt rather more.

In that case – rather no attention than that people think that I’m prepared to support a war which is wrong.

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