On Sunday the Netherlands completed its retreat from Afghanistan, pulling out the remnants of a 1,950-strong contingent. In so doing, the Dutch bid farewell to a mission they began and led in 2006 in Uruzgan province, a mission in which 24 Dutch soldiers lost their lives.
The Netherlands now has the dubious distinction of being the first NATO ally to call it quits and joins lonely Switzerland, who pulled its two soldiers – yes, all two of them – in March 2008, as only the second country to fully vacate Afghanistan.
The Dutch withdrawal didn't come as a surprise. When President Obama settled on his surge strategy for Afghanistan in February 2009, he asked his NATO allies to pitch in and extend their deployments. Most balked, but the Dutch … they literally fell apart.
In February 2010, the Dutch coalition government collapsed after Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende failed to convince his Labour Party partners to extend the Dutch deployment past August 2010. As Ulrich Petersohn of the ETH Zurich told me, "the Dutch Parliament was simply unconvinced by arguments suggesting that major security interests were at stake in Afghanistan." Most analysts rightly interpreted the government's failure as a fatal blow to the Dutch mission. President Obama, NATO officials, and European leaders put on a brave face, but the disappointment was palpable. Edwin Bakker of the Clingendael Institute in The Hague argued at the time that "a withdrawal will damage the reputation of the Dutch as a reliable partner." The New York Times also hit the nail on the head in an editorial. It wrote that the proposed withdrawal "is an embarrassment to the Netherlands, to NATO, and to Washington … We fear the Dutch decision could provide cover for wavering politicians elsewhere – Germany, for example, or Canada, which is now scheduled to pull out its troops at the end of 2011."
So now that the Dutch are finally out, what kind of lessons does this episode offer Canada as it prepares to exit Afghanistan next?
Well, put it this way: the Dutch will be remembered for two things.
First, they pioneered, refined, and perfected the innovative 3D approach to counterinsurgency – defence, diplomacy, and development. The Dutch tactic garnered early success in Uruzgan, was later adopted by others, and is today a central pillar of ISAF's Afghan strategy. So in the wake of its withdrawal, everybody is trotting out the compliments. In May, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the "Dutch soldiers and civilians have done excellent work. In fact, the Dutch '3D' approach … is a model for our own efforts." Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen offered that "the Netherlands has done its duty" and thanked Dutch soldiers for their ultimate sacrifice. ISAF commended the Dutch for having "served with distinction" and Afghan President Hamid Karzai thanked the Netherlands "for their work … in building the country." So, thanks Netherlands, for all that hard work. Safe trip home.
Second, the Dutch managed to elicit the most enthusiastic applause the Taliban could possibly muster. "We would like to offer the citizens and government of the Netherlands our heartfelt congratulations for having the courage to take this decision," a Taliban spokesman declared. "We hope other countries with soldiers stationed in Afghanistan will follow the Dutch example and withdraw their troops." And just in case you thought cave-dwelling Taliban weren't au courant with Dutch political developments, their spokesman added that "the PvdA" – the Labour Party's Dutch acronym – "has made one of the most important decisions for the Dutch government and citizens." So, thanks Netherlands, for leaving prematurely and emboldening a vicious adversary with a penchant for mutilating women, killing children, and beheading policemen. Don't let the door hit your backside on the way out.
So what should Canadians expect when we become the third country to pull our troops out of Afghanistan – as we've promised – by next year?
Expect Canadian leaders to thank our military and civilian personnel for "their hard work" and "sacrifice". Expect our American and European allies – despite their disappointment – to show us their gratitude for our "diligent" and "brave efforts". Expect President Karzai (if he's still around) to express his appreciation for our "assistance in stabilizing his country". And expect the Taliban to thank us personally for showing them that no matter how badly they brutalize Afghans and how unpopular their war becomes, they'll win if they can just wait us out.
Posted by Alex Wilner