Nato flabbergasted by Dutch reaction to troop request
Dutch politicians asked for an official Nato request to keep troops in Uruzgan. The current political infighting in The Hague is raising eyebrows at the organisation’s headquarters.
Nato officials can no longer make sense of the Netherlands’ behaviour. The country asked Nato secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen to write an official request for Dutch troops to stay in the Afghan province Uruzgan until the summer of 2011. Rasmussen would not have made such a request if he was not certain it would be accepted. "We assumed everything was in order," a high Nato official told NRC Handelsblad. "We discussed it at length at the Afghanistan summit in London [last month]," another concurred.
Nato officials interviewed on Thursday all said they are flabbergasted by how Dutch cabinet members are dealing with this issue that could now lead to the fall of the national government. All spoke on the condition of anonymity, because they are not allowed to make official statements regarding the case.
"The secretary general has been very active in approaching all Nato countries to send more troops to Afghanistan," one official said. "The Dutch request for this letter was exactly what Nato needed."
A political paradox
Officials are surprised Rasmussen's fax, sent on February 4, is now at the heart of a political crisis in the Netherlands. "Did this really make the difference?" one asked. "Would the Netherlands not have ended up in this situation without it?"
Officials spoken to wanted this reporter to answer some questions as well. "How fast can a new government be in place if elections are held? Two months?," one informed. "Uruzgan must be an issue in the campaign, so a new government is bound to make a fast decision, right?" And: "Surely, cabinet can still reach a decision on sending F-16 fighter jets even if it resigns?"
Nato officials had seen deputy minister and Labour leader Wouter Bos on television, demanding the government confirmed its decision to withdraw the last Dutch soldier from Uruzgan no later than December 2010. They are amused by the idea the Dutch government may now ask Rasmussen to revoke his request. This would create a political paradox: withdrawing the letter could make an affirmative answer to it easier. "An interesting idea," one official said. "Here is a situation we have never dealt with before. Do you think it would matter?"
Play into the hands of the Taliban
This is not the first time Nato is amazed and annoyed by the Dutch political approach to Afghanistan. At a time when practically all Nato members have committed to sending more troops, the Netherlands is trying to abandon its mission in Uruzgan. At a press conference in October, Rasmussen said the Netherlands would play into the hands of the Taliban if it left.
He has not been quite as harsh in his judgment of the withdrawal since, but always made it clear he wanted the Dutch to commit to a longer stay. Rasmussen realised pressure from Nato could come in handy in this regard, but he did not want to raise the stakes too high. "He knows how difficult it is to manoeuvre in a coalition government," one official said of the former Danish prime minister.
Now the Netherlands is really making a fool of itself, Nato officials in Brussels said. "Their way of handling this leaves much to be desired," one commented.
But most worried about how to proceed if the Dutch cabinet does take a dive. For now, the Dutch decision to leave Uruzgan this year stands. "Will that still be effective if the government falls? We need to know if it is, and act on it fast."