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Dutch withdrawal from Afghanistan may have cascading effects

Alok Rashmi Mukhopadhyay was Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • February 23, 2010

    The collapse of the Dutch coalition government on February 20 mainly on the issue of extending the term of its combat forces in Afghanistan must be worrying for the International Security & Assistance Force (ISAF) pursuing the latest offensive, Operation Moshtarak. Not only would the Dutch withdrawal indicate a fissure within NATO but it would also bolster the morale of the Taliban. The Dutch decision, rather the indecision that prevailed within the ruling coalition, whether to extend the stay of Dutch forces beyond August 2010 is also indicative of the fact that European solidarity with the United States which rose immediately after 9/11 and led to participation in the NATO-led ISAF, has been increasingly fading away amongst the foreign and security policy makers in the small and medium sized EU member countries.

    The Dutch withdrawal was not unexpected. For more than a year, European media has been reflecting the growing public opposition to any kind of extension for their armed forces in Afghanistan. Regular casualties, fatigue, difficult terrain, and even post-engagement trauma have remained serious concerns for European soldiers. Even in October 2009 when the Dutch parliament extended the stay it did so quite unwillingly. In Germany, besides the press and the public, Bishop Margot Kaessmann sharply criticised the presence of German soldiers in Afghanistan leading to a national debate ahead of the London conference on Afghanistan. However, European governments – small or large, old or new – so far have been able to extend the terms of the national caveats, in order to keep their soldiers posted in Afghanistan. But the Dutch withdrawal indicates that realpolitik has prevailed on the Dutch policy makers who preferred to pull out their armed forces rather than showing continuous military support for NATO. In the last few months some European allies have even been publicly expressing their displeasure about the US insistence on a surge in European military participation.

    At first glance the Dutch withdrawal seems to be the outcome of the collapse of the government at home, the non-extension of the parliamentary approval, and most importantly the 21 casualties since 2006 in Afghanistan. But the underlying imperative and strategic significance of the withdrawal might be described as domestic requirement. Being a small European country which faces the threat of home-grown extremism as well as from the globally-connected Islamist network, the Dutch armed forces are required back at home for internal security and counter-terrorism.

    Even before and after 9/11, terrorist networks had been rather active in the Netherlands, indoctrinating and recruiting second-generation Muslims for Jihad in global hotspots including Kashmir. Similarly, the ghastly killing of the controversial Dutch film maker Theo van Gogh in November 2004 was the most dangerous instance of home-grown radicalism when a young Moroccan-Dutch killed van Gogh only because the director criticised some Islamic traditions in his film ‘Submission’. The Dutch domestic intelligence agency (AIVD) was correct in its assessment in the Annual Report of 2008 that, “The Netherlands and Dutch interests constitute preferred targets for internationally active jihadist networks…. The Pakistan-Afghanistan border region is an important base for internationally active networks which also threaten both the Netherlands and Dutch interests abroad.” Moreover participation in the ISAF has considerably increased the risk of home-grown terrorism in almost all European countries as spelt out by a senior Dutch Counter-Terrorism officer, Lidewijde Ongering, in 2007, “…the term ‘home-grown terrorism’ is slightly outdated. Just as Dutch Muslims left home to fight in Kashmir, Spanish participation in the war in Iraq formed the motive for jihadists in Madrid to blow up several commuter trains.”

    Given the present European backdrop, most European nations have been seriously contemplating the use of their armed forces primarily for internal security duty to tackle the terror threat at home. At present, the Dutch position in this regards may not be so well-articulated but the Strategic Defence Review (SDR) presented by the British Ministry of Defence in February 2010 may be indicative of the common European trend. The most important of the six key questions that the British SDR would like to consider is the indivisibility between the internal threat and the threat emanating from abroad. So far Britain remains the most important European partner in the ISAF, be it in terms of largest force participation or facing highest casualties. Its linkage with the region is historical as well as its experience. However, while Gordon Brown on the occasion of presenting the British Af-Pak strategy made it clear that, “we cannot allow this region to be a base for exporting terrorism to Britain’s streets,” it has become obvious that the magnitude of terror attacks and threats have so for not been fathomable by British security agencies. The British counter-terrorism establishment can therefore no longer depend solely on the traditional anti-terrorist agencies but may have to deploy military units should any terrorist attacks occur or even for daily duties. In future it is likely to be the trend in all EU member countries.

    The Dutch contribution to stabilise the volatile Uruzgan province is commendable. However its exit from the conflict scenario in Afghanistan would not only increase the burdens of other important allies, but would also have a negative symbolic value for the ISAF as a whole. The Dutch withdrawal from Afghanistan may have cascading effects, as smaller European countries notwithstanding their importance in contribution or numerical strength, may also announce their exit citing their own national caveats in the months to come.