Bad day for Netherlands, now Europe’s dodgy ally
Robert Fox: Dutch have opened the door to a racist prime minister and ruined their reputation in Europe
The collapse of the Netherlands' coalition government, which means the withdrawal of all 2,000 Dutch troops from Afghanistan this August, is a blow to the people of Uruzgun, where they are stationed, and to the international coalition trying to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan. But for the Dutch people the stakes appear much higher.
In bringing down the coalition government, the Dutch Labour Party, led by Wouter Bos, courts disaster, for it has opened the door to Geert Wilders and his far-right Dutch Freedom Party. "I had hoped for this day for a long time and it arrived after all," Wilders said yesterday. "We can now wave the flags to celebrate."
The Dutch prime minister, Jan Peter Balkenende of the Christian Democrat Alliance, had hoped to extend his country’s commitment to Nato’s effort in Afghanistan beyond August, despite the fact that most Dutch people are baffled by the Afghan mission.
Balkenende recognises that the image of the Netherlands is far from flourishing abroad. After a recent tour through Afghanistan, I would go further. The Dutch pull-out - just as the new international strategy led by General Stanley McChrystal is reaching a critical point with the launch of Operation Moshtarak - will strengthen the judgment of their harshest alliance critics that the Dutch are a nation of quitters.
The Dutch have had 1,600 combat troops plus support elements in Uruzgun province since 2006, and 21 of their service personnel have been killed there. All being well, it had been hoped to hand over one district of Uruzgun to full Afghan control by the late summer.
Now they have earned the distinction of being the first major Nato ally to pull out of Afghanistan, and at the most inconvenient moment for their principal allies there, the US, Britain, Canada and Denmark.
It is pretty clear in the field that the Dutch army wants to stay. It is still suffering from the shadow of the events at Srebrenica, the UN refugee enclave in Bosnia the Dutch were supposed to be guarding in July 1995. The Dutch garrison was swept aside by Bosnian Serb forces who then murdered between 5,000 and 7,000 unarmed Bosnian Muslim men and boys.
The Dutch have worked hard in Afghanistan to make amends. In particular their running of the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in the town of Tarin Kot has been hugely admired. They are credited with having done more for schooling and health care than any other PRT effort in the whole of Afghanistan.
The move by Wouter Bos, who as well as leading the Labour Party was finance minister in the outgoing coalition government, appears to be naked political opportunism. And it appears to have paid off, at least in the short term. His party’s rating has gone up in the latest opinion poll this weekend, though it remains in fifth place.
The real winner in the present turmoil is likely to be Geert Wilders, whose brand of populist Islamophobia has a huge following in the Netherlands. His motley band of followers is now challenging Balkenende's Christian Democrats for top place in the opinion polls and there is a real possibility he will be the next prime minister.
Bos has shown himself the master of the political wrecking-ball. He’s pulled down the government, opened the road to power for Wilders and his racist rabble-rousers, and, with one deft swipe, has embedded the Dutch reputation as Nato and Europe’s dodgy ally. ·
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