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Damage Limitation..or Damage Creation

Friday 01 November 2013

photo Giles Scott-Smith

The joke at the moment is that while the US has eavesdropped on 35 world leaders, Mark Rutte wasn’t on the list because the Netherlands has collapsed into insignificance in recent years, writes Giles Scott-Smith

The Volkskrant made the best of it by running a piece on saturday (‘Missie Imagoboost’) on the added benefits of joining international missions. Not taking part means not being seen and not being recognized as a credible partner. Security guru Rob de Wijk, VVD’er Hans van Baalen and former ForMin Ben Bot banged the drum for international involvement and the dangers of isolation (and xenophobia).Rutte and Timmermans have certainly done their best to diffuse the recent spat with Russia, with Timmermans declaring a wish to deepen ties with that country even as the verdict of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea on the Greenpeace case is still awaited. But the mantra is clear – the Netherlands needs to get internationally committed again, after some serious drift in recent years.

The Volkskrant article was undoubtedly well-meant, but it sits in stark contrast to what they published a week before on Saturday 19 October: a double-spread reconstruction of the diplomatic malaise over the past ten months that eventually led to the Mali mission. Frans Timmermans was already looking to secure Dutch involvement in Mali in early 2013, as a way to move beyond the opolitically awkward end of the Uruzgan mission and the low-low-key attempt at a follow-up in Kunduz. The French requested EU support for their counter-terrorism / counter-insurgency operations in February, but political divisions in The Hague prevent Timmermans from making a move. The blockage was the VVD, usually a firm supporter of Dutch military missions abroad, but this time over-occupied with budget cuts and domestic dossiers. Neither was VVD MinDef Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert willing to back her own military top brass and push the issue. The VVD also has bad memories of the last time a Dutch military force had to rely on (non-existent) French air support – in Srebrenica – which occurred under a then VVD MinDef, Joris Voorhoeve.

Timmermans tried again in May, once there was finally political support in The Hague. But this time the French, having received enough support from other EU member states, are less interested in a late, under-par Dutch contribution. This led to bad vibes between the respective top brasses, and a general worsening of the diplomatic mood. The result, thanks to Belgian and Luxembourg intervention, was the stationing of a single non-French-speaking Dutch liaison officer at the French-led military base in Koulikoro, as a kind of ‘compromise’.

This was patched up over the summer, but by then the future mission had shifted from the EU to the UN, on 1 July. The MINUSMA mission is looking to have 11,200 soldiers and 1440 police under its command to stabilise the country and push a peace process forward. Because the netherlands is late in getting attached to Mali operations, the only tasks left over for the proposed 400-man force is the toughest – intelligence and counter-insurgency operations in the rough mountainous terrain in the north-west of the country.

The article concludes that, instead of the training mission that was a step too far for the VVD in February, the Netherlands government now has a full-on combat mission on its hands.

But it goes beyond that. The MINUSMA mission was, ironically enough, in April placed under the leadership of a Dutchman: PvdA heavyweight and former Development Minister Bert Koenders. All well and good in a period where the Netherlands is lobbying for a seat in the Security Council, to be decided in a vote of the General Assembly in October 2016. But Koenders and Timmermans, despite being from the same party and both internationally-minded, do not get on. This is not a marriage made in heaven for Dutch internationalists. And Koenders has quite a reputation from his ministerial role during the Uruzgan mission, which was one of the first topics for the Bureau back in early 2010 (Weighing the Success of Failure….Or The Failure Of Success). Stories of a €10m fund for economic development, to be channelled via the newly-founded Werkgroep Economische Wederopbouw Afghanistan, did not come to much. Comments that Uruzgan could be developed into an equivalent of the fruit-growing Betuwe region in the middle of the Netherlands did not help either, but Koenders stuck to his position that progress was being made.

Mali is going to be another form of ‘robust development’, as Uruzgan was. Koenders has described it as ‘a stablisation mission that is as much about peace-making as it is about protecting the population in the north against extremist groups based on a robust mandate.’ He’s keen to make a mark as a UN administrator and seems aware of the risks, which, he says, carefully passing the buck, The Hague will have to measure. But Srebrenica and Uruzgan hang over this like a cloud. The Bosnian experience because of Dutch troops being outgunned, outnumbered, and humiliated. The Afghan experience because of its ending in political turmoil and the collapse of the CDA-PvdA coalition in 2010. Some see the same happening, only this time with the VVD and the PvdA.


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