The Dutch should stick around in Afghanistan
Nato deserves a realistic but favourable response from the Dutch government.
Slowly but surely a political escape hatch is opening up, leading out of the Dutch political stalemate concerning the mission in the Uruzgan province of Afghanistan. Nato secretary general Rasmussen has asked the Dutch for "a contribution that is smaller and limited in time" in Afghanistan and the cabinet is officially considering a trimmed down military presence there.
The Dutch coalition has long been divided on the future, if any, of the mission. The Labour party has been dead set on leaving Uruzgan after August 1, 2010, as was agreed when the mission was extended in 2007. Labour now has to make a decision.
The government argues it doesn't want the progress that has been made by its militaries and community workers to be squandered, but "perpetuated". Or so it says in a letter written by the three ministers involved: foreign minister Maxime Verhagen, a Christian democrat, defence minister Eimert van Middelkoop, of the orthodox Christian party, and development aid minister and Labour member, Bert Koenders.
At the Afghanistan summit in London last month, a new plan was discussed which the Netherlands cannot simply ignore. Within five years, sovereignty in the country should be entirely transferred to the Afghan government. In the interim, foreign troops will slowly leave the country. A crucial aspect of this "transition" - the Dutch government refused to use the term exit strategy - is the number and level of the Afghan military and police forces and the speed at which these can be built.
The plans on the table are to ensure that 100,000 extra forces are recruited and trained by the middle of 2011, when the United States begins to pull out its troops. Nato has asked the Netherlands specifically to focus on training these security forces.
The goal is ambitious - perhaps too ambitious - but it deserves serious attention, especially because the Dutch "3D" approach incorporating defence, diplomacy and development, has met with positive response in Afghanistan. Not just from Afghan government officials, but from non governmental aid organisations as well. Wasting this success, only because it was once agreed the mission had to end at the end of 2010 at all costs, would be a shame.
This does not mean a continued presence in Afghanistan is without consequences, both politically and financially. The proposed training project will require approximately 700 personnel, half the number of troops now involved in Task Force Uruzgan. Military unions have expressed concern over whether the Dutch military can muster this commitment. Its own training capacity could be jeopardised.
Real as this risk may be, it can't be the overriding consideration. At a time when the Nato partners have scaled down their ambitions to a more modest level, and no longer rule out overtures to the Taliban, the Dutch government has to be willing to reconsider its political verdict. Nato's request deserves a realistic but favourable response.