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Going Dutch in Uruzgan

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2 August 2010 16:26

The Netherlands has now formally ended its mission in Uruzgan with a change-of-command ceremony. But four years and 24 deaths later, what has the mission achieved?

When the Dutch first approached Australia to co-deploy in Afghanistan, Uruzgan was not the only province on the table. There were a number of safer options which would have exposed both nations to fewer risks, but which would also have been less useful in combating the Taliban.

After the national shame of Srebrenica — where Dutch peacekeepers failed to stop one of the most infamous massacres of recent times — the Dutch needed to reestablish pride in their armed forces. Uruzgan was a suitably ambitious province in which to take a lead role. While some have dismissed the difficultly of operating in Uruzgan, on any objective measure, it is no walk in the park. There might have been differences in approach (and food tastes) between NATO nations and partners, but the Dutch have restored some of their wounded pride. 

Interestingly though, it might be the ghosts of Srebrenica and the fear of being left holding the can that have contributed to driving the Dutch withdrawal.

At several moments, political backing for the war from the Dutch parliament seemed in doubt. Critics might argue this revealed the inherent weakness of the Dutch political system. The multi-party nature of the Dutch system of government certainly makes decision-making incomprehensible and infuriating to an outsider. Yet the fact the Balkenende governments pushed ahead with the mission, despite fierce opposition, demonstrates that tough decisions can still be made.

Another, less noted, success has been the partnership that has developed between Australia and the Netherlands. Early on, this had the potential to be grown more fully (for example, through the co-location of embassy compounds in Kabul), but it still served to highlight the many interests the countries share, even though they are not often considered natural partners.

The Americans are no doubt frustrated that the Dutch are withdrawing, with the job a long way from done. But with the Dutch coalition government falling over the issue, there is not much more the US can ask for.

The Dutch haven't changed the game in Afghanistan, but no medium-sized country is going to. And the Dutch haven't done too badly, as this independent assessment commissioned by the Netherlands suggests. The Netherlands might be leaving early, but it did take on a challenging province when softer options were available. Let's hope the partnership with Australia will continue in other areas. 

*The author was a diplomat at the Australian Embassy in The Hague from 2005 to 2007.

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