Netherlands Weighs Involvement in Afghanistan

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Representatives from more than 60 nations are in London to discuss the future of Afghanistan. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has appealed to the Dutch government to increase its commitment to the peacekeeping mission, but some Dutch politicians say that mission is too dangerous and its goals are ill-defined.

JOHN YDSTIE reporting:

YDSTIE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie.

Representatives from more than 60 nations and international organizations are in London today discussing the future of Afghanistan. The country remains plagued by violence more than four years after the fall of the Taliban. NATO is preparing to expand its mission in Afghanistan. U.N. Secretary General Kofie Annan has appealed to the Dutch government to increase its commitment to the peace keeping mission. But some Dutch politicians say that mission is too dangerous and its goals are ill defined. NPR's Rachel Martin reports.

RACHEL MARTIN reporting:

On a cold afternoon in a bucolic meadow along the Dutch-Belgian border, an unusual site emerges over the horizon.

Major ROBERT DE YOUNG(ph) (Dutch Air Force): You see four helicopters; two in the middle, that's the Cougars, and an Apache on either side.

MARTIN: Major Robert De Young of the Dutch Air Force describes a training exercise for Holland's only squadron of Apache helicopter gunships. As the helicopters start to land, two soldiers posing as insurgents appear in far corner of the meadow and open fire with blanks.

(Soundbite of gunshot)

MARTIN: A few minutes later, the helicopters drop off a couple dozen soldiers who then pursue the insurgents on foot.

(Soundbite of soldiers)

MARTIN: The same squadron has already spent a year and a half in Afghanistan and will be sent again in a few months if the Dutch Parliament agrees. NATO members plan to expand their troop levels from nine to 15,000 and extend their presence through the south and east of Afghanistan, allowing the U.S. military to withdraw some of its troops.

NATO secretary general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has urged the Netherlands to cooperate.

Secretary General JAAP DE HOOP SCHEFFER (Secretary General, NATO): It is my strong hope that all the potential contributors through this expansion will indeed participate, because I think this expansion is very important indeed, and we need as many allies as we can get.

MARTIN: Dutch ministers have agreed to send 1,200 troops to the southern province of Uruzgan. They'll focus on peace keeping and reconstruction, while U.S. led forces continue counter-insurgency operations nearby. Some Dutch politicians say the plan blurs the line between NATO peace keeping and American counter-terrorism efforts.

Lousewies van der Laan is the deputy leader of Democrat 66, part of the Dutch Parliament's governing coalition. She and her party are opposed to the deployment.

Ms. LOUSEWIES VAN DER LAAN (Deputy Leader, Democrat 66): The way the mission is currently defined to try to do reconstruction in a war zone, it is simply not going to succeed, and we're not willing to ask people to sacrifice their lives for what will then, in essence, be a symbolic mission.

MARTIN: Many Europeans have concerns about the U.S. treatment of prisoners in Afghanistan and the American's aggressive counter-terrorism tactics there. The Dutch also have haunting memories of the 1995 massacre at Srebrenica, in the former Yugoslavia, when Dutch troops were unable to prevent Serb militias from killing thousands of Bosnian Muslims. Because the U.S. and NATO have left many of the details of command and control undefined, there are similar fears about the Afghanistan mission. Van der Laan says the Dutch need to be given clear rules of engagement and clear commitments from the U.S. in order to ensure Holland has the authority and the support it needs to be effective in Uruzgan.

Ms. VAN DER LAAN: Even then there's still a thought, well, will they actually come, because they didn't come the last time we asked them.

MARTIN: But supporters of the Dutch deployment in Afghanistan say Holland can't afford to turn its back on the NATO mission. Hans van Baalen is a member of the Dutch Liberal Democratic Party.

Mr. HANS VAN BAALEN: (Dutch Liberal Democratic Party): The Dutch are questioned whether they are serious if they say the government says we want to join an operation. So the credibility as a stable partner that will erode.

Mr. MICHAEL CLARK (Professor of Defense Studies, Kings College London): I think what the Dutch need is some reassurance that they won't be left as if we're trying to sure up an impossible situation.

MARTIN: Michael Clark is a professor of defense studies at Kings College in London. Clark says NATO's expanded commitment to Afghanistan is so important, it cannot be allowed to fail.

Mr. CLARK: If it goes right, NATO will have redefined its role in relation to the United States. If it goes wrong, the chances are it will go very wrong and leave the Atlantic Alliance in a worse mess than it was in just at the end of the first phase of the Iraq war.

MARTIN: Clark says Afghanistan needs a stable and committed NATO and American presence to prevent it from again being overrun by drug lords and terrorists. The Dutch Parliament will vote on the deployment February 2. NATO troops are expected to begin moving into Southern Afghanistan by this summer.

Rachel Martin, NPR News.

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