The Netherlands is the first member of NATO to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan. For four years it was the International Security Assistance Force’s (ISAF) lead nation in the Afghan province of Uruzgan. On Sunday, this responsibility will be handed over to the US and Australia.
The Dutch are the first to withdraw, breaking the solidarity among NATO states. All NATO countries have troops in Afghanistan and they will be anything but pleased with the Dutch move. NATO, however, remains a military alliance of sovereign states and that sovereignty implies that a member state may choose to no longer take part in a mission.
The “Uruzgan issue” brought down the Dutch government in February. The Labour Party (PvdA), one of the partners in a three-way coalition government, was opposed to a further extension of the Afghan mission and withdrew its ministers from the cabinet. A new government has yet to be formed. In theory, it is possible that the Netherlands will ultimately grant a NATO request to launch a new mission to train Afghan army and police personnel. Whether or not this will materialise remains, for the time being at least, pure conjecture. It will depend on the political complexion of the new cabinet.
Since February, Uruzgan has more or less disappeared from the Dutch parliamentary agenda. Even back in 2006, when the decision to join NATO's ISAF mission was taken, Labour politicians had difficulty selling it to their rank-and-file. This led to the Netherlands’ participation being presented as a “reconstruction mission”.
There are only indirect references to the word “reconstruction” in ISAF's mandate. The force's core remit is to boost security in Afghanistan. While in some countries it was the death toll among service personnel that sparked sometimes fierce debate, in the Netherlands the discussion centred on the contrived distinction between “reconstruction mission” and “combat mission”.
In 2006, Dutch popular support for the mission in Uruzgan was never particularly strong. Opinions on the issue differed widely from the outset, but, as the mission dragged on, the level of opposition rose to 41 percent of the population in July 2010, with 33 percent supporting the mission and 27 percent undecided.
Such a heavily armed Dutch force had not been deployed abroad since the Korean War in the 1950s. From the beginning of their mission, Dutch soldiers from Task Force Uruzgan were involved in combat with Taliban rebels, foreign insurgents and local militias. In June 2007 the entire Dutch battalion was deployed to fight in the “Battle of Chora”, a fact that was kept top secret at the time. The Netherlands and its allies Australia, the US and the Afghan army had too few troops to cover the whole province and the use of the entire battalion in a single operation meant that other areas were of necessity left exposed and vulnerable to attack.
Although it has not been said in so many words, the departure from Uruzgan will not do much for the Netherlands’ reputation within NATO. It puts paid to any idealistic notion of “we’re all in this together”. From Washington’s perspective, there is another aspect to consider: not a single European NATO ally has been ready or willing to plug the gap left by the Dutch, leaving the US with no choice but to step into the breach.
Only time will tell if the Netherlands will once again shoulder the responsibility of a major mission on the scale of its role in Afghanistan. However, the likelihood does not seem great. Public opinion and most of the country’s political parties are not well disposed towards the prospect. The Dutch armed forces have let it be known that, after four years in the front lines, they need a breathing space. The facts also speak for themselves: neither NATO, nor the European Union have any plans at the ready to conduct a mission like the one in Afghanistan elsewhere in the world.