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What is the future for Dutch troops in Afghanistan?

By Edward Stourton
Presenter, Radio 4's The World This Weekend

An Afghan soldier from the Guard of Honor holds a Netherlands flag
An Afghan soldier holds a Dutch flag...but for how long?

Gordon Brown recently called on other countries involved in Nato's Afghanistan mission to "share the burden" of troop numbers.

There is currently fierce debate in the Netherlands over the future of its troops, after politicians voted to end the Dutch commitment.

But which way is opinion moving?

President Obama should at last reveal his hand in the coming weeks over American troop numbers in Afghanistan.

That decision will of course make the weather internationally, but there's a distinctive flavour to the Dutch debate because of the country's recent history.

Until World War II, the beautifully preserved medieval city of Amersfoort in central Netherlands was the country's largest garrison town.

Now that many of the soldiers based at the local barracks are serving in Afghanistan, it is a source of tension for a city so steeped in military history as this.

"I don't like it. They should come home", one man tells me. "They will never win the war. 20 young men have died, but what for?"

One woman though praises her country's troops: "I think it's good, they help people there."

The Dutch have had around 2000 troops in Afghanistan since 2006 and in the early days of their presence, you would probably have found a much greater level of support for the operation in Amersfoort.

The coffin of a dead Dutch soldier is carried in procession
Deaths have led to growing calls for the soldiers to return home

Public enthusiasm for joining the multinational mission was driven partly by the haunting memory of the Dutch role in Bosnia in the 1990s, according to the Dutch sociologist and commentator Dick Pels.

It was Dutch troops who were supposed to be providing protection, under the auspices of the UN, for the thousands of Muslim men later massacred at Srebrenica.

Mr Pels believes the commitment of Dutch troops to Afghanistan was initially, in part, strongly connected to the "shame" of not helping out more in the Balkans.

"Our troops failed to protect those 7,000 men. So there was this need to make up for past mistakes, this sentiment of shame," he says.

But that feeling has died down over recent years, with the growing number of deaths among Dutch troops convincing more Dutch people that their forces have now "proved themselves", he adds.

Troops out?

The Dutch mission is centred in southern Afghanistan in the province of Uruzgan, but also in other parts of the country such as Baghlan, Kabul and Kandahar.

So far, 21 soldiers have died.

Their deployment has already been extended once - the troops should have been home last year, but they stayed on because no other Nato nation could be found to offer replacements.

The commitment is now due to end by the autumn of 2010. The Dutch parliament voted in October that it must definitely stop by then, although the Dutch government has yet to endorse that vote.

Wim van den Burg, chairman of the AFMP union
Union leader Wim van den Burg claims troops have "qualms" over their role

Martijn Van Dam, an MP from the governing coalition in the Netherlands, believes that the only way to make the Nato mission in Afghanistan a success is for more nations to share the burden of troops.

"Other countries have to take over. We are willing to continue our development aid and our civil efforts. But public support has decreased and our troops will be coming home next year," he says.

A unionised army

Unlike their counterparts in the UK's armed forces, Dutch service personnel are allowed to be members of a union.

The two biggest unions have taken opposing positions on the future of troops in Afghanistan.

Wim van den Burg, chairman of the AFMP union, claims that troops are "citizens in uniform" who have "similar qualms" about the Afghan deployment as the rest of the population.

Other countries have to take over...our troops will be coming home next year
Dutch MP Martijn Van Dam

There is one major difference, though: they are unable to express this unhappiness due to their roles, so his union has to do it for them.

"The decision of course remains for the government and the parliament.....but we've been in Afghanistan for four years with little progress. We're pushing for troop withdrawal. It's important the voice of the military is heard," says Mr van den Burg.

The contrary position comes from Jan Kleain, who chairs ACOM, the other main Dutch trade union for service personnel. He feels the mission is now very dangerous, but that withdrawal would represent a betrayal of the friends and relatives who have lost loved ones in Afghanistan.

"The mission in Afghanistan is now too heavy a burden for the Dutch. But if we leave, and there is no other country taking over, I can't tell the parents of soldiers who've died that it was all for nothing," he explains.

"The dilemma is we can't leave the Afghan people in the same situation they were in back in 2006."

President Obama's decision on troops is eagerly awaited in the Netherlands.

But as in Britain, it remains to be seen whether they will continue to follow America's lead.



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